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News And Notes: Down The Stretch They Come

February 25, 2013 6:27 pm EST

HOUSTON - Want to be a playoff team? The application for admission in the Western Conference typically starts with these two prerequisites: take care of business at home and beat up on the bottom feeders. The Rockets have most definitely recorded high marks in the former category as the team boasts a 19-8 mark when playing in front of the Toyota Center crowd. But while their 16-11 record against below .500 teams is nothing to scoff at, improvement in that area down the stretch would go a long way toward ensuring the club is able to punch its postseason ticket.

The Rockets will get a chance to do exactly that in the coming weeks when they come face-to-face with what is likely to be the friendliest portion of their 2012-13 regular season schedule (it should be noted that, based upon opponent winning percentage, the Rockets have actually played the toughest schedule in the NBA up to this point in the season). Beginning with Wednesday night’s matchup against the 26-28 Milwaukee Bucks, seven of Houston’s next eight games will come against foes currently below the .500 mark. Looking further ahead, once the Rockets return from a three-game road trip that takes place the first full week of March, the team won’t leave Houston again for another 18 days. In other words, Houston is about to enter a month-long stretch offering significant opportunity to not only solidify its playoff standing, but to perhaps gain ground in its attempt to achieve a higher seed as well.

A particularly tasty portion of the schedule hardly guarantees gastronomical bliss, of course. If the Rockets require any reminders of that sort, they need only recall their recent run-ins with the Wizards and Kings – two teams well below .500 which nonetheless doomed Houston to defeat. So while the Rockets realize a golden opportunity lies before them, they’re also just as keenly aware that they can take absolutely nothing for granted.

“We let two games slip away,” admitted James Harden after Monday’s practice. “We’re not allowed to do that at this point in the season. We’ve got a lot of teams under .500 so we’ve got to do a good job on really focusing in on what we have to do in order to win those games.”

Houston’s players and coaches will attempt to accomplish that while simultaneously doing their best to hasten the assimilation process of newcomers Thomas Robinson and Francisco Garcia. The two newest members of the team took part in their first practice with the Rockets Monday afternoon. Not surprisingly, the session ran more than a half hour longer than usual as the coaching staff took extra time to make sure the new arrivals were on the same page as everyone else.

Robinson was as advertised: raw to be sure, but a serious force on the offensive glass and someone capable of using his nonstop motor and superior athleticism to make an impact on the defensive end – his violent chasedown block of a fast break layup during the scrimmage portion of the workout left little doubt about that. His effort and energy drew raves from Harden, who mentioned that Robinson’s enormous physical gifts and work rate should fit right in with a Rockets team that is at its best when flying up and down the floor.

As for when the 21-year-old might see meaningful minutes, patience is probably the order of the day. Midseason transitions such as these typically take time, especially when the player involved is just a rookie. Add to that the fact the Rockets have no need to rush Robinson onto the floor. Does he possess certain attributes that can help his new club right away? Absolutely. But the same can be said for frontcourt players like Donatas Motiejunas and Greg Smith who have each enjoyed impressive stints both before and after Houston’s deadline deals were made. In fact, head coach Kevin McHale specifically mentioned Motiejunas when asked for his thoughts on the best way for Robinson to work his way into the Rockets’ rotation.

“I assume if you would rebound, run and defend, coach might find a spot for you,” said McHale. “D-Mo’s got his time to play more because it started in practice … (Rockets management) said they wanted to move him down to the D-League and go back to the Vipers and I said, ‘No, he’s practicing so well I’ve got to find a way to get him in the game.' It was hard. We were trying to figure out how to get him in, but he just practiced hard enough, worked hard enough that I was bound and determined to find a way to get him some minutes and now it’s finally working out for him.”

If Robinson employs a similar approach, his opportunity will likely arrive sooner rather than later. And should he prove to be a quick study and pick up some of the moves McHale was personally showing him during an impromptu, one-on-one low-post practice session following Monday’s workout, then the Rockets’ playoff application will likely be placed on the fast track to unanimous acceptance.

And 1s: Measuring in at just 6-1, 185 pounds, Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley doesn’t exactly fit the prototype of a player with the potential to be a beast on of the offensive glass. Yet Beverley currently boasts an offensive rebound rate of 7.3, a number that would rank him No. 1 among all point guards in that category (The Clippers’ Eric Bledsoe currently owns the top spot with a mark of 6.1).

Of course, that sort of benchmark from the point guard position can be a double-edged sword. Come up empty in the pursuit of the loose ball and the end result could very likely be an easy fast break opportunity for the opponent at the other end. The key, much as it is for players who excel at collecting steals by roaming the passing lanes, is about finding a way to strike the proper balance.

“Offensive rebounding is like speeding on the highway,” said McHale. “It’s really good when you don’t get caught. You offensive rebound, I’d say your court balance has probably got a few issues. He’s got to get out of the corner and get back. When it works it’s good, but when you get your speeding ticket it’s not so good so he’s got to be very careful as to when he does it.

“He has a knack for the ball; he’s a ball hawk. The thing that he can do that’s unique a little bit is he can get in there, test the waters a little bit and then sprint back and still get in the play because he’s so fast – that’s not something that I would honestly encourage too much because of court balance … especially from the top-in – if he’s at the top of the key when the shot’s gone and he goes to the offensive glass, that usually spells bad stuff.”

Lastly, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced Monday that the team has signed center Tim Ohlbrecht to a multi-year deal. Ohlbrecht, who comes to the Rockets via Houston’s single-affiliation NBA D-League partner the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, marks his first-ever Gatorade Call-Up to the NBA. In addition, the Rockets formally announced the assigning of forward Tyler Honeycutt to the Vipers.

Ohlbrecht (6-11, 255, Germany) has averaged 13.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.63 blocks in 32 games (29 starts) with Rio Grande Valley this season. He was also named a 2013 NBA D-League All-Star, registering 12 points (6-9 FG) and a game-high 12 rebounds for the Prospects in a 139-125 win over the Futures squad. At the time of his signing, Ohlbrecht led the D-League in field goal percentage (.605, 164-271 FG) and stood 13th in the league in blocks per game (1.63).

A member of the German National Team, Ohlbrecht has also competed internationally with Bayer Leverkusen (Germany-BBL, 2005-06), Brose Baskets Bamberg (Germany-BBL, 2006-09), Telekom Baskets Bonn (Germany-BBL, 2009-11) and Skyliners Frankfurt (Germany-BBL, 2011-12).

Honeycutt (6-8, 188, UCLA), who was acquired by the Rockets from Sacramento on Feb. 20, averaged 0.9 points and 1.1 rebounds in 3.6 minutes per game over nine contests with the Kings this season. He was selected by Sacramento after his sophomore year out of UCLA with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.