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Thursday January 20, 2011 4:45 PM

News And Notes

Hayes restoring order to Rockets as team prepares to go big game hunting in Memphis

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - It’s amazing what a difference a week can make in the NBA.

Just five days ago, the Rockets were licking their wounds and trying to regroup from a nightmarish start to 2011 which saw them lose seven of their first eight games of the calendar year – a stretch in which many of those defeats occurred in the most painful way possible.

Today, however, the mood surrounding the team is drastically different. The Rockets have won three of four and can see the light at the end of a January tunnel which has thrown a ghoulish schedule chock full of playoff caliber competition their way.

There is still much work to be done, of course, and plenty more monstrous matchups remain. But the team is back to playing better basketball and as a result still finds itself in the mix for a postseason berth, currently sitting three games behind Portland for the West’s No. 8 seed.

That the Rockets’ resurgence has coincided with the return of Chuck Hayes is no coincidence; he is the fulcrum of Houston’s interior defense and his ability to defend the game’s elite big men one-on-one is instrumental in helping the club get stops and close out games come crunch time. In fact, it’s impossible to watch the way he so expertly defended New York’s Amar’e Stoudemire Wednesday night without thinking what his presence could have meant when Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Utah’s Paul Millsap were wreaking havoc against Houston while Hayes was on the shelf with an ankle injury to begin the new year.

What’s done is done, however, and injuries are an unfortunate part of the game with which all teams have to deal. All the Rockets can do at this point is make sure they take care of business going forward, and with a healthy Hayes back in tow, they clearly are far better equipped to do so.

“He just doesn’t get enough credit,” says Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman. “Last year I couldn’t understand how he didn’t get any votes for All-Defensive team. I feel the same way now. He doesn’t play the minutes some of these other guys do and he doesn’t block shots, but he’s every bit as good a defender as anybody in the league in the post.”

Adelman isn’t the only one in Houston posing such questions about Hayes’ candidacy for All-NBA recognition on the defensive end. This exact space has carried the banner for the sixth-year forward since the beginning of last season, when Hayes first began assuming a larger role in light of Yao Ming’s injury woes. With his powerful base, quick feet and even quicker mind, Hayes consistently finds a way to stymie the greats of the game, despite giving up multiple inches to his opponents night after night.

“I’ve been undersized my whole life,” says the University of Kentucky product. “I just try to make it difficult for [opponents]. I take it like this: they only have 24 seconds on the shot clock, so for 24 seconds just do your job. I take it in those increments... If I can stop my man from scoring for those 24 seconds, then I’m helping out my team.

“I’ve been blessed with huge, great legs from my mother’s side and quick feet on my dad’s side. And the hands, I don’t know, I’m just lucky I guess.”

As is often the case, Hayes gets no respite after successfully keeping Stoudemire in check. Next up is the Grizzlies’ own All-Star candidate Zach Randolph who, while perhaps lacking the panache of Stoudemire, lacks little, if anything, in the way of overall quality and effectiveness. Randolph is averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds for the season, though he’s been even better of late, putting up more than 24 points and 14 boards per game in January.

“They’re so different,” says Hayes, when asked to describe how his focus shifts when switching from Stoudemire to Randolph. “With Zach, you want to take away his space. He doesn’t have the quickest first step, but he wants to create contact so he can create his own space. Zach is a better shooter than Amar’e so you want to take away his space and make him have to dribble the ball more than two times. The more dribbles he takes, the less effective he is.

“People always ask me who’s my hardest guard. Is it Amar’e, Dirk, Garnett, Duncan? I tell them it’s two people and one of them is Zach Randolph. The main reason is because he’s a left-hander and he has the greatest touch of any big in the league and due to the fact he’s left-handed, he’s such a hard guard.”

(Hayes' other nemesis, in case you were wondering, is Utah's Al Jefferson)

The Rockets boast just a half-game advantage over the Grizzlies in the standings, with Memphis having played one fewer game than Houston up to this point. Clearly, then, this is an incredibly significant game for both clubs since it’s entirely possible they could find themselves fighting over one of the final playoffs spots out West. What’s more, a Rockets win Friday night would hand them the tiebreaker since Houston has already defeated the Grizzlies twice this year. The Rockets, in fact, have owned Memphis of late, having won seven in a row against the Grizzlies, with the margin of victory exceeding 10 points each time.

“We’ve got two former Grizzlies on the team," says one of those former Grizzlies, Shane Battier, while trying to explain Houston's dominance over Memphis. "So you know you have two guys in Kyle [Lowry] and myself who are going to be ready to play because we want to win this game. I don’t know if we get the guys more riled up for this game or not but we know this is a good team and we have to play well to beat them.

“Their strength is not perimeter shooting. Rudy can get it going and Mike Conley is a pretty good shooter as is O.J. Mayo. But we want to make them take jump shots and keep them out of the paint. They’re a great offensive rebounding team, top-5 in the league, and we just want to control tempo. We need to push it every time we get the ball, get quality shots and keep them on their heels.”

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