Introducing The Goon Squad
Rockets' second unit providing club with big lift off the bench
MEMPHIS, TN - They call themselves ‘The Goon Squad.’
At first blush, the label hardly seems complementary, possessing the feel of a nickname far more befitting hockey players whose prime objective is to dole out punishment on the ice, rather than a group of highly skilled NBA athletes.
Yet the Rockets’ second unit has fully embraced its self-appointed moniker while preferring to dish out punishment of an altogether different sort. Houston’s bench brigade has been the story of the team’s season-long six-game road trip, sparking the Rockets with their aggressive defense on one end and slick, synchronized spacing and ball movement on the other.
“Goon Squad may not sound complimentary but it’s all about having a mindset of going in there to do the dirty work,” says Courtney Lee, describing the rationale behind the bench players’ full-fledged embrace of their preferred title. “If there’s a loose ball, we have to go get it. If it’s a close game, we’ve got to be that team that’s going to go out there and get a big stop. It’s our job to go in there and elevate the level of play.”
That much they have done in spades during this trip, earning the lion’s share of the plaudits for the Rockets’ road wins over Denver, Portland and Phoenix. Whether it’s been Chase Budinger’s big shots, Jordan Hill’s rebounding, Goran Dragic’s playmaking, or Patrick Patterson’s and Courtney Lee’s rock-solid, all-around production, the Rockets have been able to lean on their reserves time and time again of late – at any stage of the game.
The second unit’s rise has given Head Coach Kevin McHale a valuable weapon to wield going forward, affording him the flexibility to mix and match lineups as he sees fit depending upon the team’s game-to-game needs. It also stands as a stark turnaround from the first few weeks of the season when McHale could barely afford to rest his starters at all, lest he wished to see the game rapidly slip from his grasp. Early season injuries to both Lee and Patterson significantly blunted the impact Houston’s bench was able to make and chemistry was hard to come by in those days. Now, however, there are no such concerns, as McHale has shown no hesitation to play members of his second unit even in the biggest of moments.
“It was a short preseason, short training camp and we didn’t have a lot of time to find out our spots and our plays,” says Dragic, when asked to explain the significant strides the Rockets’ reserves have made since the beginning of the season. “But now I think we’ve figured this out and we’re playing much better. We are like family on the court battling for each other and it feels great.”
There is also another, less discussed but just as pertinent, benefit to a team getting big-time production from its bench: Namely, not only does that sort of effort from the Rockets’ second unit provide the starters with much-needed breathers, but it can also prompt the starting five to raise its own level of play as well. Healthy competition can be quite the catalyst in the right circumstances, providing a unique form of motivation that McHale remembers well from his playing days when he was a key player coming off the Boston Celtics’ bench.
“I don't think there's anything wrong with the starters knowing that there's a guy (on the bench) that can come in and really play and if you don't perform,” says McHale, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. “A lot of times it's not so much about what you're not doing as it is the fact that it might be a night that that guy is just playing really well. Be happy for your teammates and enjoy their success. The bench has been great.
“In this league it's all about trying to get better. The nice thing about coming off the bench, for me anyway, was if the guys in front of you were playing great, I'd say, 'Man, if I want to stay on the floor tonight, I have to be great -- not good, great.'”
That is precisely the sort of mentality the Goon Squad has adopted of late. And though that moniker may not seem an ideal match for the players its come to represent, there’s no denying their play on the court has provided the most perfect of fits.