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News And Notes: Heat Check

November 12, 2012 1:31 pm EST

Rockets ready for toughest test; Lin happy for former coach

HOUSTON - The concept of “tests” is an ever-present topic in professional sports, especially when the top teams come to town. And though the subject might be a tad overblown – after all, every game presents its own sort of challenge and test – there’s no doubt the game’s elite have a unique way of helping to establish a benchmark of sorts for the amount of growth and development a club has truly established.

From that standpoint, there is no finer test in the NBA these days than the one provided by the high-flying Miami Heat and the young Rockets will get a chance to gauge where they currently reside on their own private learning curve when the defending champs invade Toyota Center tonight.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the exam will come on the defensive side of the ball, where Houston has been impressively stingy thus far, currently ranking seventh in the league in defensive efficiency thus far. With Omer Asik manning the middle, the Rockets have a defensive anchor with the ability to repeatedly stifle opponents along the interior and that’s exactly what they’ve done through the season’s first six games as Houston also sits seventh in the NBA in terms of field goal percentage allowed at the rim according to Hoopdata.com.

Of course, the Rockets have not yet faced anything resembling Miami’s “flying death machine” either. No one attacks the rim quite the way LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do. Couple that with the Heat’s squadron of outside shooters and it rapidly becomes evident that this is a rabid animal programmed to inflict madness upon opponents with its ability to pile up paint points and space the floor in a way few teams could ever dream of.

Miami’s offensive metrics are a veritable Synergy symphony, screaming excellence in virtually every area. So, yes, this will be a test alright; one with the potential degree of difficulty approaching something akin to astrophysics.

“The key for us is going to be not allowing the ball to get in the paint, which we’ve gotten pretty good at, and contesting their threes,” said Rockets acting head coach Kelvin Sampson following Monday’s shootaround. “We know they’re going to make some threes. Last night Memphis beat them at their own game; Memphis made a ton of threes. I’d say we’d like to do that too, but I’m not sure Wayne Ellington is going to show up and make seven out of 11 threes for us tonight.”

Indeed, the three-ball will be of massive importance for the Rockets tonight – on both sides of the floor. And from an offensive standpoint, Houston can find hope in the fact that the Heat have yet to flex their defensive muscle so far this season. Miami comes into tonight’s contest ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency and has been particularly poor when dealing with pick-and-roll ball-handlers – a component which just so happens to be the strength of the Rockets’ offense. According to Synergy Sports, Miami is 23rd in the league versus pick-and-roll ball-handlers, while Houston sits 8th in the NBA in terms of points per possession created in such situations.

So the Rockets should have opportunities to exploit Miami’s soft spots. But as Sampson mentioned, they’ll absolutely have to start knocking down a greater percentage of their open threes (Houston ranks 27th in three-point percentage) and simply must avoid turning the ball over in bunches (the Rockets are 29th in the league in turnover rate).

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Lastly, you might have heard that the Lakers made a wee bit of news overnight by hiring Mike D’Antoni to be their new head coach. Of course, D’Antoni was the man in charge of the New York Knicks last year when the Jeremy Lin show went boffo on Broadway and, not surprisingly, the ever gracious Lin was thrilled to hear his former coach will be prowling the NBA sidelines once again.

“I’m obviously very happy for Coach D’Antoni,” said Lin. “He deserves it. He changed my career and he changed my life and I’m always thankful to him for that and I wish him the best of luck in LA.

“He gave me confidence in running the offense. He’s a coach that empowers his players and gives them the confidence and ability and freedom to go out there and play to the best of their abilities. That’s what he did for me last year.

“I think his system is so hard to guard; if the players buy in then I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. You have so much spacing and then you have Dwight Howard in the middle – the last thing he needs is more space. You have Pau Gasol, a versatile four-man who can pick-and-pop, catch-and-drive and he can pass as well. Then obviously Kobe who can do it all and then Nash – you’ve seen what he did in that system.”

Lin and the Rockets, by the way, will get an up close and personal view of the new look Lakers this Sunday when they pay a visit to Staples Center for the first time this season.