Nothing Random About It
HOUSTON - The Rockets wasted little time putting their recent run of slow starts in the rearview mirror. Then they did the same to the free-falling Utah Jazz.
With Jeremy Lin and James Harden leading the way, Houston built a 26-point lead before holding off a late Utah rally to win 100-93. The victory of course comes with playoff implications galore. It gives the Rockets a three-game lead over the Jazz in the Western Conference standings and the all-important tiebreaker between the two clubs. It also draws Houston even in the loss column with Golden State (another team against whom the Rockets own the season’s tiebreaker) in the hotly contested race for the sixth seed. Make no mistake, those accompanying add-ons figure to help Houston immensely in its effort to punch its playoff ticket and boost its postseason positioning.
But perhaps just as important from a big picture perspective was the way in which the Rockets closed this one out. That might seem somewhat counterintuitive given the fact Houston unquestionably started the game much stronger than it finished. The Rockets’ defense, so suffocating in the first half against Utah’s slow and stodgy offensive style, appeared to relax late in the third quarter, allowing the Jazz to surprisingly add some tension to the proceedings before Houston ultimately put them away for good. But though it’s certainly no excuse, such letdowns are not uncommon in the NBA. And seeing the Rockets put Utah on lockdown through the first two quarters hardly merited much of a surprise either given A.) Houston’s ability to defend in the half-court (the Rockets’ defensive issues are exposed far more often in transition) and B.) The state of disrepair currently doubling as the Jazz offense these past few weeks.
Potentially far more meaningful for Houston, then, was Jeremy Lin’s ability to take over in the second half when Utah responded to James Harden’s 20-point first half by throwing everything but the kitchen sink his direction. Through the first two quarters, the Jazz didn’t even come close to figuring out a way to slow Houston’s spectacular two-guard. Randy Foye failed miserably. So, too, did Alec Burks. But when Utah attempted to formulate an answer by attempting the aforementioned kitchen sink strategy, the Rockets responded by simply changing the question.
As much as the first half belonged to Harden, the game’s final two quarters were bought and paid for by the offices of Linsanity Inc. Lin absolutely owned the third quarter, repeatedly taking advantage of the bright, bold, Vegas-style neon sign Utah had seemingly erected while inviting him toward the rim before riding to the rescue late in the final frame to ensure the Rockets were able to keep the Jazz rally at bay. Three times in the final five minutes Utah closed the gap between themselves and Houston to eight points, and twice Lin deftly utilized the crunching screens set by Omer Asik to break free for layups. On the third occasion he mixed things up a bit, rifling a picturesque, one-handed bounce pass to Chandler Parsons for an emphatic slam.
That play in general and Lin’s performance in particular signify a potentially important step forward for this team amid its constant quest for growth, diversity and maturation. It’s no secret at this point that Harden is going to be the focal for both the Rockets and the opponent’s scouting report. Opposing teams are going to do everything in their power in an attempt to force someone else to beat them. At various times this season, that strategy has proven to be effective (primarily for teams possessing wing-stopping personnel far superior to that possessed by the Jazz). But every time Lin proves he can punish teams for loading up on Harden, he brings Houston one step closer to a pick-your-poison dilemma that has no right answer.
Wednesday night’s showing was just the latest in a two-month trend that has seen Lin light up the scoreboard with increased regularity. His averages since February 1: 15.6 points and 6.1 assists per game (in just over 31 minutes per contest) while shooting better than 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc. Chandler Parsons has seen a similar uptick in his production during that span as well. The more these two players grow and the greater experience they accumulate playing with and off of each other, the more they will be able to both take the load off of Harden and help the team incorporate layers of subtlety – like the aforementioned fourth quarter connection between the pair – to an offense that is simple at its core yet already exceedingly combustible.
“Variety is hard because we’re random and you can’t really structure randomness,” said Lin after the game. “But you can impose certain guidelines or themes that you want to do in your randomness. The coaches are doing a great job of teaching us to vary it up and to change looks so that we don’t hit them five times in a row with the same one because that’s when (opponents) adjust and figure it out.”
Leave it to the Harvard grad to flip a basketball question on its head by providing a response that leads one perilously close to the rabbit hole of chaos theory. But the big picture truth within Lin’s answer is clear enough: the Rockets came one step closer to reaching their playoff goal Wednesday night while taking a potentially more significant step toward becoming the team they’ll need to be if they want to wreak a little havoc once they get there.
(On team's play) “I thought when we needed some hoops Jeremy (Lin) really attacked the rim well. James (Harden) got fouled a lot. He got to the line 18 times. We played really well in stretches in that game. We got a little conservative and started getting slow. We started nursing the lead which you can't do that. Overall, from an energy standpoint, I thought our start was tremendous. I thought we got off to a good start. I thought we had good energy. I thought we had good defensive rhythm. Gordon Hayward hurt us tonight but we were kind of able to handle a lot of other stuff.”
(On Patrick Beverley's play in the 2nd quarter) “I thought Patrick did a good job of being aggressive defensively. We have to make sure that when Patrick and the second unit gets in there...we get a little boggy but they haven't played together very much. In truth, we are still trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together. We have to get more movement, more quick attacks, more hard rolling, and more thrusting at the basket with that unit, but I thought Patrick did a nice job.”
(On nursing the lead and loss of defensive intensity) “It was a little bit of everything. We had a big lead. We really came out in the 3rd quarter and said 'let's win the 3rd quarter'. We gave up a foul late and tied the 3rd quarter. In our league, teams are going to make runs. Stuff is going to happen. We had a different unit in there for a while and gave them (Jazz) momentum but we were able to get out with the win and that's what we wanted to do.”
(On matching up defensively with the Jazz) “I thought that Omer (Asik) did a great job of really being aggressive down there defensively, pushing guys out and making them take some shots. (Paul) Millsap was driving on us. We got Thomas Robinson who played well and went out and did some good stuff for us along with D-Mo (Donatas Motiejunas). We've got two rookies who are trying to find their way out there. Sometimes they are going to get posted up and they are going to have some issues.”
(On Lin’s play) He played well. I thought Jeremy made some big hoops coming down the stretch where we needed him to get to the basket. They were really intent on staying with James in the second half and really not giving him a lot of room, so Jeremy really broke free. They were guarding him a little differently; they were stepping up and getting back and Jeremy kept turning the corner and got in the paint and we needed all of those. He played very well.
(On the importance of building an early lead) “It was really important because we had gotten down by 20 (points) in the last two games in the first half, so we wanted to make sure tonight that we build the lead for once so we weren't always playing up hill.”
(On the Rockets defense in the paint) “It was great. They made it tough for (Paul) Millsap and Al Jefferson all night. Omer (Asik) is a beast down there. We did a good job, Chandler (Parsons) did a good job defensive rebounding and so we didn't give them too many offensive rebounds. I thought we did a good job of clogging up the lane and making them not really see anything with too much space.”
(something you had seen that indicated best plan was to attack?) I just think a lot of times I read the big man and what the guard is doing. The guard was coming over the screens and then the big man was leaving early so it allowed a lot of dribble penetration for me and James tonight … Omer and D-Mo set great screens all night and they were able to free us up.
(the incredible bounce pass to Parsons) That was all him reading his man who trailed over the top. I couldn’t even see him to be honest because his man was in the way. He just cut and I was able to get it to him. It definitely wasn’t planned or we were saying, ‘Watch out for it,’ but he did a great job, read the play and I think we had James Harden in the corner so they couldn’t really help too much off of him.
(adding offensive subtlety over course of the season?) Definitely. Variety is hard because we’re random and you can’t really structure randomness but you can impose certain guidelines or themes that you want to do in your randomness. The coaches are doing a great job of teaching us to vary it up and to change looks so that we don’t hit them five times in a row with the same one because that’s when they adjust and figure it out.
That was huge. Coach went over the mathematics and the importance of this game before we went out there. We understood the tiebreaker, we understood what’s at stake for the playoffs and the seedings, so this was a huge game for us to get going forward. Obviously they went on a little run at the end but we just got to continue to play for 48 minutes and not get bogged down like that, not slow down, just really keep going for 48 minutes.
We were just aggressive defensively. We really wanted to come out from the start after the last few games. We didn’t want to have to fight and crawl back into it. The gameplan was actually to double-team those guys but they never really got going. Our bigs did a great job of guarding them one-on-one and not letting them score. Hayward hit some tough shots but I thought overall our defense was really good and we set the tone early instead of laying back on our heels and letting them come at us. We really came out and were the aggressors.
Jeremy stepped up big tonight. I think we have a lot of guys who can step up in key moments. Chandler’s shot wasn’t falling tonight but he’s another guy who can step up at any point. Carlos can make big shots. We have numerous guys who can come in the fourth quarter and make plays and big shots. That’s the beauty of our team.
(On how the Rockets started the game) “We did a good job on our defensive intensity, especially in the first half. In the first half, we locked down on the defensive end and obviously our points came from that so credit goes out to those guys coming out and playing hard.”
(On other teams playing on a half court defense) “I think we get stops and we rebound the basketball. There is no way that the teams can stop us in getting in transition and getting the easy points. So, it is a matter of us doing what we have to do in order to get out in transition.”
(On what the Rockets did successfully) “Utah is a great team, especially down in the post. They had so many bigs, it's a problem in the NBA. I think we did a really good job today of trying to build the lead and trying to stay with the game plan. We were able to come up with the win.”
UTAH JAZZ COACH TY CORBIN
(On the game) “I thought the group that finished the game for us did a good job fighting our way back into it. The group that we had in gave us the kind of effort we need if we are going to work our way out of this thing. You have a chance if you don’t put yourself in a hole and if you give the kind of effort (in the fourth quarter) then you’re going to have a chance. We just have to make sure that we figure it out. We have to get that kind of effort for 48 minutes.”
(On team’s play ) “Whatever guys that give us the best chance and compete that’s who’s going to be on the floor. We can’t except anything less than that. We have to make sure we do whatever it takes to get us over the hump. We have to give the effort and make sure we are laying everything on the line for 48 minutes.”
(On the playoff push) “We’re still in the fight. We’re still alive. We’ve slid and this is a tough loss for us but we’re still in the fight and we’ll approach every game trying to contain and compete to win the ball game and we’ll see where that goes.”
(On his play off the bench) “I was just trying to fight hard and we just didn’t have enough time to win the game. We got off to a slow start and we overcame that and we played hard but we didn’t get the win. I was always attacking and trying to put pressure on the defense and that’s why we (Hayward and him) play good together.”
(On the team’s fourth quarter play vs. early play) “I thought we got a lot of good shots in the first half but a lot of them didn’t fall in for us and we a lot of mistakes as far as turning the ball over and not getting back on D (defense). They got too many easy layups. We just made a lot of mistakes that cost us and we just cant dig ourselves in that big of a hole and fight back. You have to give us and our guys credit for staying in and having a chance in the end. It’s hard to dig yourself in a deep hole on somebody else’s court.”
(On the fourth quarter defensive change) “I don’t know, we got stops I guess and we were rotating. We are still in it, we have to keep fighting. We’re trying to stay with it and stay together. We ain’t out of it yet.”
(On the backcourt of him and Alec Burks) “We play hard and we competed out there. I think we work well off of each other. He can drive and draw and kick and that helps both of our selves and our teammates. He did a real good job of attacking in the fourth quarter and he went to the rim and tried to make plays. That’s when Alec is at his best when he attacks and we get to the free throw line.”
(On Jazz play) “You can’t get down to a team like this at home and expect to come back. I think we got it down to within five but we got into too big of a hole and they are too good of a team and too talented offensively to expect to keep them without scoring. We fell short and it was a big one for us but we can’t get down. It’s very frustrating to fall behind, especially on the road. We’re going to make our run but we just can’t give up those five to ten minutes pushes where they gain 20 to 25 points on us. That’s just not acceptable.”
Houston notched a 100-93 victory over Utah tonight, giving the Rockets the season series (3-1) and moving them a full three games ahead of the Jazz in the Western Conference standings.
The Rockets scored the first six points of the game and went wire-to-wire in the win, leading by as much as 26 points on the night. It was the third time this season that the Rockets did not give up the lead in a game.
Houston limited Utah to just five offensive rebounds tonight. The Jazz entered tonight’s contest ranked sixth in the NBA in offensive boards at 12.5 per game.
The Rockets held the Jazz to an opponent season-low 33 first-half points on 14-of-39 (.359) shooting. The previous low was 34 points by the Hornets at New Orleans (1/9/13).
James Harden scored game-high 29 points (5-14 FG, 2-6 3FG) off a 17-of-18 performance from the free throw line. He came up just one make shy of the Rockets mark for most free throws made in a game without a miss, which coincidently came against the Jazz exactly two years to the date of tonight’s game. Kevin Martin went 18-of-18 from the charity stripe vs. Utah (3/20/11) to set Houston’s individual record for most free throws made in a game without a miss.
James Harden actually scored 20 of his points (5-8 FG, 2-3 3FG, 8-8 FT) in the opening half tonight, marking his first 20-point first half since netting 21 points over the opening 24 minutes vs. Oklahoma City (2/20/13).
Jeremy Lin registered 24 points (9-13 FG, 5-6 FT) and six assists tonight, which gave him three consecutive 20-point games for the first time since notching three in a row from 2/17/12-2/20/12. Lin also recorded 24 points vs. Minnesota (3/15/13) and netted 21 points vs. Golden State (3/17/13).
James Harden (29) and Jeremy Lin (24) combined for 53 points tonight. It marks the ninth time this season Harden and Lin have combined for at least 50 points in a game, which is the most such game by any starting backcourt in the NBA this season (#2 is seven by Bucks Jennings-Ellis backcourt).
Omer Asik finished with nine points (3-8 FG) and another 12 boards tonight, giving him 10 or more rebounds in 21 of his last 23 games.
Gordon Hayward matched his season high in scoring with 27 points (9-15 FG, 3-4 3FG, 6-8 FT) to go with eight rebounds tonight. Hayward set his season best with 27 points vs. Dallas (1/7/13).
Al Jefferson posted 18 points (9-19 FG) and 11 rebounds tonight, which gave him 31 double-doubles in 64 games played.
Paul Millsap recorded 16 points (6-10 FG), four rebounds and another two steals tonight. Millsap entered tonight’s game second in steals among power forwards in the Western Conference behind Blake Griffin.