The Great Escape
Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 117-115 win over the Dallas Mavericks
HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Dallas Mavericks:
Some games surprise you. You take a look at the matchups beforehand in an attempt to divine how things might go down, and then the ball is tossed up in the air, everything goes haywire, up is down, left is right, and absolutely nothing goes the way you the way you anticipated.
This was not that sort of game.
From the very beginning, two of the top offenses in the NBA strutted their stuff while the defenses could only languish about while looking on with some combination of awe and terror. Dirk Nowitzki was all kinds of awesome, connecting on those patented off balance, one-legged jumpers while pumping in 38 points and pulling down 17 rebounds. And at the other end of the floor, Dallas predictably had no answer for slowing Houston’s similarly high octane offense as the Rockets made life miserable for the Mavs by burning them in transition and burying a high percentage of their 3-point looks.
Despite Dirk’s brilliance, Houston largely maintained control of the contest throughout thanks to the superb performances turned in from the likes of Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and, yes, Donatas Motiejunas, who registered the first double-double of his NBA career while hauling in a career-high 13 rebounds. Coming into the contest, the Rockets were well aware that if they were to put an end to their seven-game losing streak in Dallas – and do so without the services of the injured James Harden, no less – it was going to require special efforts from sources both expected and surprising. They got them.
So everything went exactly according to script, right? Well, yes and no. It’s complicated. As in, watching ‘Inception’ after taking an Ambien kind of complicated.
First things first: Let’s not bury the lede here – the Rockets won 117-115. And in the end, of course, that’s the only thing that matters. Houston bounced back from its two ugly losses to Memphis in the biggest and best way possible, bouncing the Spurs and Mavericks on back-to-back nights while in the process putting some particularly painful recent history in the rearview mirror. Any win over either one of those teams is huge, impactful and an achievement worthy of celebration. But doing so in the span of 24 hours for the first time since 1989? Yeah, that sort of Texas two-step deserves a little extra sway in your hips. Maybe even some mild twerking. OK, OK. You’re right. Let’s not get carried away.
Where were we? Oh, right. The complicated part. If you watched those final three minutes and lived to tell your grandkids about it, congratulations. Your purple heart should arrive at your doorstep shortly. Because while of course it was completely, utterly and wholly predictable that Dallas would rally and force the Rockets to earn this streak busting win, it’s predictability played out like a horror movie that sees the serial killer take out the summer camp one teen at a time – you know, kind of like every other game the Rockets have played in American Airlines Arena the last few years.
But this … this furious Mavericks’ comeback was macabre and debased on an even lower level than Houston had previously experienced in Dallas, primarily because the Rockets seemed so very ready and willing to assist in the process of serving their very own hearts on a silver platter. They fouled 3-point shooters. Twice. They missed layups. They threw the ball away on an inbounds pass. This wasn’t horror; it was straight up torture. It was being forced to read one more godforsaken story about Justin Bieber right after someone strapped you to a chair, duct taped your eyes open, and forced you to marathon Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
And then, the sun broke through the clouds, the bonds were broken, Bieber and Kim were banished from your memory banks, and the cherubim and seraphim on hand sang notes so sweet and golden that you didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The correct answer: probably both. Jose Calderon, one of the best shooters in the game, missed not one but two potentially game-winning 3s. At long last, the Rockets had won. Check that – the Rockets survived.
“To get both San Antonio and Dallas back to back – we’ll take that any day of the week,” said an obviously relieved Jeremy Lin immediately after the game. “We’re really happy about it and now it’s just a matter of continuing to build.
“But I don’t think we did a good job of protecting the lead. We do that all the time, so it’s definitely a cause for concern. But I’m thankful to God that we got out of here with a win.”
That was undoubtedly a common refrain in the Houston camp tonight which may help explain that sound you might have heard sometime around 10 PM Central Standard Time. Confused? Don’t be. That was simply the sound of every single Rockets fan in existence collectively and simultaneously whispering ‘hallelujah.’
- Jeremy Lin was terrific right from the beginning of this contest. The attacking mentality that had served him so well against San Antonio the night before carried over as he wasted little time shredding the porous Dallas defense. Lin scored 10 of his 18 points in the opening period, setting the tone for a Houston team that was borderline unstoppable on the offensive end for the vast majority of the evening. Even Lin’s lone turnover in the opening period was one borne of positive aggression.
- Meanwhile, what on earth got into Dallas’ DeJuan Blair? His play in the opening period was that of someone angry about his inevitable All-Star snub. Dirk dominating is one thing. But Blair going off for 11 points and 3 boards while playing some inspired low-post defense against Howard could not have been something Houston planned on seeing.
- Much has been made of Chandler Parsons’ ascension, but the growth and diversification of his offensive game continues to delight and amaze. I’ll be brutally honest: he’s doing things I never thought I’d see him do. His ball-handling, shooting, decision-making and off-ball movement have come so far since his rookie year. And yes, improvement is to be expected from all young players. But the chasm that exists between what he was as a rookie and the player he’s become in his third NBA season is still worth ogling over every now and then (Note: That’s probably the first time the word “ogle” has been used while describing Parsons’ basketball skills rather than his appearance. Proud moment for me)
- Man, did the Rockets get great minutes from their bench tonight, in particular Donatas Motiejunas and Aaron Brooks. I think it’s fair to call this the finest game of D-Mo’s young NBA career. His hyper style of play still gets the better of him now and then, but his contributions more than made up for it tonight. He both corralled and created loose balls with his non-stop energy, and he made Nowitzki play defense which is a must when playing the Mavs. Brooks, meanwhile, really wreaked havoc with his shooting and quickness from the perimeter. It was downright jarring at times to watch some of the Mavs’ plodding defenders hopelessly attempt to stay in front of him.
Coming into the game tonight, it sure seemed as if Dallas would have a big edge in terms of bench play. To be sure, reserves like Blair, Vince Carter and Devin Harris gave Dallas a huge lift. But Motiejunas and Brooks helped to make sure the Mavericks didn’t dominate when Houston’s starters got a breather. In fact, they more than held their own as Brooks finished with a game-high plus/minus of +12 while D-Mo ended up at +5 for the evening.
- The Rockets hit nine of their 21 3-pointers while Dallas connected on just 5-of-19 from beyond the arc. With the way both offenses were rolling tonight, that perimeter shooting disparity was effectively the difference in the ball game.
- In the first half, Patrick Beverley got called for charging as he sped down the court attempting to finish a fast break. Later in the game, Dallas’ Devin Harris picked up an offensive foul on a very similar play. Both were tough, 50-50 calls, but the main takeaway for me was an even greater appreciation for the devastating nature of James Harden’s euro-step. The way he’s able to not just fool, but avoid defenders during his high-speed forays to the hoop really is incredible.
- Maybe I shouldn't be, but I’m truly stunned to have seen two of the league’s very best coaches stick with the Hack-a-Howard strategy as long as they did, even when it was clearly not working. One night after San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich got burned by creating a third quarter parade to the line for Houston’s All-Star center, the Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle employed the same tactic tonight with even worse results as Howard hit 7-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter and 9-of-11 overall.
- Lastly, we might as well bring things full circle by praising Lin once more for making the absolute most of the opportunity he’s been given these last two nights. He not only set the tone this evening, but he also left a significant imprint on the proceedings in the fourth quarter when he came off the bench near the midway point of the period and immediately tore right through the Dallas defense for a pair of layups to return the Rockets’ cushion to what seemed, at the time anyway, like a comfortable 9-point bulge.
- With the win, the Rockets’ record improves to 31-17. They’ll enjoy a well-earned day off tomorrow before returning to the practice court Friday in advance of Saturday night’s match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Toyota Center.
(Did you break into a sweat when Calderon put that last one up?)
“We doubled-teamed Dirk. We wanted to make sure Dirk didn’t beat us. It got over and Calderon had a look and thank goodness he missed it. We fouled them. They had 8 free throws off of two fouls on 3-point shooters, and we fouled Dirk after a free throw. If we don’t do that then we’re perfectly fine. Make them use the clock and come up. You know we have to switch up and not foul the 3-point shooters. Then we had some turnovers and we missed two or three chances in fast break opportunities to blow the game completely open. We had a layup, but turned around and made the pass and Chandler got the charge. All that being said it was a hell of a win for us. We played last night and they came in and made some tough shots. Carter made two huge three’s in the fourth. They got a lot of free throws late. We found a way to win, which is what we needed to do.”
(Is this kind of game somewhat about growing pains for 2nd year players?)
“You hope so. The only thing about experience that makes any kind of sense is you have to learn from it. If you do the same thing then if doesn’t do you any good. I told Patrick to settle down. We had some mental breakdowns for a while. They recovered and it was a hell of a win for us”
(on Jeremy Lin)
(He did) a tremendous job. Jeremy played really well. He played really well last night, and played really well last night. We needed everyone one of them. He had seven assists and two turnovers and really moved the ball, attacked and did a nice job for us.
(On beating two divisional foes back to back)
“Yes, these wins are huge for us. Those were two big games for us, especially after losing two to Memphis, it was important for us to get these two. It is always fun and exciting and physical when we play those two. San Antonio is one of the best teams in the league, and like I said, Dallas is fighting for a playoff birth, so those are two big wins for us.”
(On how important it is for the Rockets to push the pace and get into an offensive flow quickly)
“It is everything. When they push the ball, when they look up, when they throw the ball ahead it makes our offense so much better, it flows. And half the time they get it right back, it just offsets the defense. Our best trait is transition offense and we need to be able to do that a lot.”
I don’t think we did a good job of protecting the lead. We do that all the time, so it’s definitely a cause for concern. But I’m thankful to God that we got out of here with a win. They played hard and they always come back.
To get both San Antonio and Dallas back to back – we’ll take that any day of the week. We’re really happy about it and now it’s just a matter of continuing to build.
I just tried to be aggressive all the time. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. It’s my job and my role to push pace and initiate.
(On what the difference was for the Rockets tonight)
“Anytime you score 117 points it means something is going right, at least on the offensive end. In true Houston form, we let them come back. That’s not something that we want to continue to do but we have been doing that a lot. So, I think that we just have to get more locked in on defense, especially as the game is winding down. We gave up 115 points, which is not something that we wanted to do, but thankfully, we were able to score more.”
(On if he feels lucky that the Rockets were able to survive with the win)
“Definitely blessed more than lucky but we are happy that we were able to sneak away with the win. We just seem to always let it come down to the wire here. The last time it was the same thing just a different result.”
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle
(On coming back as a team to have a chance in the last minute of the game)
“That was good. We gave ourselves a chance, which was great, but the first 46 minutes or whatever it was were not good. It’s a lot of the same problem; keeping people in front of us and giving up too many layups. We’ve got to do better.”
(On if Monta Ellis got frustrated by foul trouble)
“I’m sure it’s frustrating to have fouls and have to come out of the game.”
(On Samuel Dalembert’s struggles guarding Dwight Howard)
“He had a couple of touch fouls in the first two minutes, and he’s got to avoid that. It takes discipline, and he’s got to be more disciplined than that.”
“He was out of the game pretty early. I almost pulled him in the second half, then, all of a sudden, he got a block and a layup so I pulled Blair back. That’s kind of how it is with that position, unfortunately. But I’m optimistic and I hold great hope that we can improve at all the positions. That’s how we’ve got to deal with it going forward.”
(On the play of Devin Harris)
“I thought he was playing hard, but I didn’t think any of our guys were really playing hard until toward the end of the game. I don’t know how many times they blew by us, but I’m glad we started fouling Howard because I was starting to get the chills over there from all of the blow-bys. It saved our guys the embarrassment of getting blow by two or three times in a row.”
Mavs guard Jose Calderon
(You guys got back in the game late with a 11-1 run) – “Yeah I think we kept fighting. We knew we were in a tough place. We couldn’t get a stop for one part in the 4th quarter, but like you said we kept fighting until the end. We got the shots at the end and we couldn’t make it but we shouldn’t put ourselves in those situations to be able to win this game. I think we made too many mistakes.”
(Talk about the last 20 seconds? You had a couple attempts) – “Well the first one was not anything. The second one was off the rebound was kind of quick. The first one was a good look they kind of double-teamed Dirk yeah but I couldn’t make it so it happens sometimes.”
(You said too many are those mostly on the defensive end?) – “I think both ways. Every time we were close we did something wrong or a bad turnover which gave them (Houston) a layup or something like that so just a little bit both ways.”
(Does it make it tougher when Dirk has a game like that tonight?) – “Yeah you know we shouldn’t be putting ourselves in those situations where we’re fighting back the whole game and we should be able to control the game a little bit earlier than that.”
Houston Rockets (30-17) at Dallas Mavericks (26-20)
Dallas: +1.4 (NBA rank: 12th)
Houston: +3.4 (NBA rank: 9th)
Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):
Dallas: 107.1 (T-6th)
Houston: 107.1 (T-6th)
Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):
Dallas: 105.4 (22nd)
Houston: 102.2 (T-9th)
Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):
Dallas: 96.86 (14th)
Houston: 97.86 (8th)
Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):
Dallas: 52.3% (4th)
Houston: 52.6% (3rd)
Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):
Dallas: 14.3 (6th)
Houston: 16.4 (26th)
Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)
Dallas: 47.6% (28th); offensive rebound rate: 23.0% (T-23rd); defensive rebound rate: 72.2% (27th)
Houston: 51.6% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 27.2% (12th); defensive rebound rate: 73.1% (T-24th)
Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):
Dallas: .246 (27th)
Houston: .397 (1st)
So long as the Rockets are of a mind to bring a halt to some rather ignominious streaks – as they did last night by securing their first season series win over the Spurs since the 1996-97 season – why not keep the momentum rolling and do something about the house of horrors that the America Airlines Arena has become? Heck, compared to the unpleasant history it finally dispatched against San Antonio, Houston’s current string of debacles in Dallas seems little more than a trifle.
As you no doubt have heard several times by now, the Rockets have dropped seven straight games in Dallas, with the vast majority of those defeats occurring in heartbreaking fashion (all seven of those contests have been decided by 10 points or fewer). But hey, all bad things must come to an end eventually. Isn’t that how the saying goes?
Butchered clichés and platitudes aside, last night’s gut-check win over the Spurs should serve Houston well on several fronts as they prepare for their date with the Mavs. See how you guys defended and pushed the pace after getting stops in the second half? Make sure you do more of that in order to take advantage of Dallas’ 26th-ranked transition defense. Remember the way you absolutely demolished and demoralized San Antonio on the offensive glass? A repeat performance in that area would be most welcome against a Mavs team that is one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. And take note of the way you limited Marco Belinelli’s air space out on the perimeter, because Jose Calderon demands the exact same sort of defensive diligence.
Easier than it sounds? Of course it is. The Mavs are healthier and more well rested than the Spurs were (and than the Rockets are, for that matter), and crazy things have a tendency to happen to Houston inside the AAC. But who wants easy, anyway? (Scans crowd, views throng of fervently outstretched hands, shifts tactics) Few things in basketball, or life, are sweeter than reaping the rewards of hard work, sacrifice and inexhaustible effort. The Rockets delivered in those areas yesterday and were rewarded handsomely. Tonight’s game promises to demand no less.
Know Thy Enemy
- Slowing the Mavericks’ high-powered offense begins with finding a way to mitigate the damage Dallas inflicts via its myriad screen-and-rolls. Nearly 21 percent of the Mavs’ offense is derived from the NBA’s bread-and-butter play – the highest such rate in the league.
Of course, why wouldn’t you run pick-and-rolls all day when Dirk Nowitzki is the one setting the screen the vast majority of the time? The future Hall of Famer’s unique ability to space the floor forces opponents into one tough decision after another, freeing up the likes of Calderon, Vince Carter and Monta Ellis to wreak havoc while defenses rightfully obsess with slowing Dirk.
Complicating matters is the fact that each of those players brings different strengths and skill sets to the table so it’s imperative for defenders to know their keys against each one. Calderon, of course, is deadly as a spot-up shooter, ranking in the NBA’s 97th percentile in that category according to Synergy Sports. Ellis, on the other hand, is much more likely to zip off the edge and make a beeline to the basket, which is why he has spent the entire season ranked among the league leaders in drives per game (10.1) and points per game scored off those drives (7.8). Then there’s the wily veteran Carter, who poses a threat both as an attacker and as a shooter from beyond the arc.
This is classic pick-your-poison stuff which is why the Rockets’ defensive focus must be on point for the full 48 minutes while also serving as extra incentive for Houston to push the pace and stay the heck away from any sort of contest that comes down to half-court execution.
- Beware the Mavericks’ trio of potential X-factors: Jae Crowder’s individual numbers won’t blow anyone away, but Dallas has played substantially better than its opposition whenever he’s been on the floor this season (his net rating of +9.9 is higher than that of any other Mavericks’ rotation regular); Brandan Wright doesn’t have the heft to hold his ground defensively, but Dallas’ offense goes into the stratosphere (offensive rating of 115.1) when he plays; and Devin Harris’ recent return from injury has given head coach Rick Carlisle one more versatile piece with which to play and put to use amid his frequently masterful in-game machinations.
- The defensive end of the floor, meanwhile, has been a season-long struggle for Dallas. The Mavs simply don’t have much in the way of rim protection, as seen by the fact they concede the league’s third-highest field goal percentage (.637) from the restricted area, they’re slow to get back in transition – after adjusting for pace, Dallas gives up the third-most fast break points per game – and even when they do force opponents into a missed shot their defensive rebounding fails them far too often.
Like a junk-ball pitcher who’s best hope for coaxing outs is by keeping opponents off balance, the Mavericks try to mix things up by utilizing their zone defense more than any other team except for Milwaukee. But that’s hardly been a cure-all; Dallas’ zone has conceded points at almost the exact same rate as their more traditional defensive methods have.
In the spotlight
Talk about a tale of two halves. In their three previous meetings this season, Houston has absolutely dominated Dallas in the first half, racking up a ridiculous offensive rating of 125.4 that has more than made amends for their lackluster defensive efficiency mark of 109.6. The Rockets have been especially deadly in the first quarter, outscoring the Mavs by an average of 11 points in the opening frame, during which their offensive rating has been an unfathomable 143.5.
But Dallas has been able to completely flip the script in the second half of these matchups. During the final two quarters, the Mavs have stolen the show by posting an offensive rating of 119.6 and a defensive mark of 104.5. And their average offensive rating in the fourth quarters of those contests stands at a remarkable 133.4. Naturally, Dirk Nowitzki has been prominently involved in those shenanigans, averaging 8 of his 29.3 points per game against Houston in the final frame.
Dwight Howard has dealt out his fair share of damage in these contests, too, averaging 25 points and 14 boards per game against the Mavs this season. The Rockets will likely require similar production from him tonight and they’ll also need to do a better job of keeping their All-Star big man involved come the fourth quarter since Dallas has held Howard to an average of just 3.7 points in that particular period.
James Harden (thumb) will be a game-time decision tonight. Francisco Garcia (knee), Greg Smith (knee) and Omer Asik (knee) are out.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.