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Friday April 15, 2011 10:50 AM

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow


What we'll miss most about the 2010-11 Houston Rockets

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Funny, the way time passes over the course of an NBA season.

The schedule is very much a marathon, the effects of which are considerable during the middle months of December and January. There is a wall which very much exists – be it for fans, players or coaches – and during that time the finish line seems so far away there isn’t even a fleeting thought given to the fact the season, like everything else in life, will eventually come to an end. Then one day you wake up to the realization that there are no more practices or shootarounds – and worse yet, no more games. It all simply comes to a screeching halt. Reality sets in: the Rockets’ season is over.

Looking back now, it seems like just yesterday the team was boarding a plane to China for a pair of preseason games. But in fact, that was October. Six months gone in the blink of an eye. Half a year – and all the accompanying hope, heartache, pain and elation – neatly packaged and dissolved into nothing more than a half-full or half-empty glass of memories. No matter your perspective, that’s tough to swallow.

So before looking ahead to the future and what promises to be an eventful offseason, let us now honor the past by pausing for a moment to reflect upon everything that’s just transpired. Plenty of the memories mined from this past season are worth savoring and these are but a handful of the ones that stand out and are sure to be especially missed:

The heart of Kyle Lowry: Wow. Just wow. That’s the first word that comes to mind when contemplating the leap Lowry made in his first full season as a starting point guard in the NBA. We’d all witnessed the boost he'd given the team off the bench in prior seasons, but his ability to build upon that in a starter’s role was a sight to behold. With a bulldog mentality and never-say-die attitude, Lowry came to epitomize everything that was great about the Rockets this year.

He ran Rick Adelman’s offense to perfection, made sure his team got great looks nearly every time down the court and never backed down from a challenge. Better still, this 25-year-old Philly kid who grew up idolizing Chauncey Billups became Mr. Big Shot himself, time and time again delivering buckets during the game’s biggest moments. His month of March, meanwhile, improbably propelled Houston back into the playoff picture, with eye-popping averages of 19.8 points, 8.1 assists, 5.3 rebounds per game, all accomplished while shooting 42.7 percent from beyond the arc. If that’s what the Rockets have to look forward to in the future, their point guard position should be in the best of hands for the better part of the next decade.

The soul of Chuck Hayes: We all thought we knew who the Chuckwagon was: low-post defender extraordinaire, magnetic personality, fatally-flawed offensive arsenal. But while Hayes is still a defensive demon of the highest order, through hard work and determination he’s transformed himself into a valuable asset on the other end of the floor as well.

For starters, his passing from the high post has become downright heavenly. Make a solid backdoor cut and odds are Hayes will find a way to smoothly slip the ball into your hands for an easy layup or dunk. And speaking of easy buckets, the sixth-year forward made a dramatic improvement in his own ability to finish at the hoop. According to Hoopdata.com, Hayes converted more than 60 percent of his shots around the rim this season – a number that’s nearly 10 percent better than what he posted a season ago. And get this: for all the (rightful) talk of what Hayes means to the Rockets on the defensive end, Houston’s offense scored 4.5 more points per 48 minutes with him on the floor than while he was watching from the bench. In other words, the Rockets managed to become an elite offense because of Chuck Hayes, not in spite of him. What a joy to watch.

The magic of Kevin Martin: The man puts points on the board. Plain and simple. Martin may very well be the quintessential “quiet” scorer but that should in no way diminish the importance of the impact he makes game in and game out. Per 48 minutes, only Kobe Bryant scored more than did Kevin Martin this year. He tied Kevin Durant for most free throws made in the NBA this season. He finished third overall in made 3-pointers. He became the first player in Rockets history to reach 1,800 points, make 500 or more free throws and hit at least 100 3-pointers in a single season. Martin is, quite simply, a modern hoops weapon of mass destruction; a highly-specialized, uber-efficient instrument designed to skillfully strike in a low-key yet lethal way, taking out opponents one free throw, transition trey, or hard cut at a time.

The unorthodox artistry of Luis Scola: Like Martin, Scola’s metronomic consistency is so unfailingly reliable it has a tendency to fade from the foreground of fans’ consciousness from time to time. Before the ball is tipped, you know precisely what you’re getting from the fourth-year forward from Argentina: unbridled effort, the heart of a lion and the footwork of Baryshnikov. He is a throwback, someone who sucks dry the marrow of his potential every day thanks to his passion for the game and an unyielding focus on the fundamentals. He is the consummate team player, a tireless competitor and, oh, so much fun to watch while he’s flummoxing one opponent after another with his dizzying and often dazzling array of dance steps in the low-post.

The perseverance of Chase Budinger: He could have caved. He could have given in. He didn’t. The first six weeks of the season were an absolute nightmare for Budinger, as the second-year swingman suffered through both a bum ankle and the worst shooting slump of his career. He confessed to a crisis of confidence. Owned up to a somewhat shattered psyche. There were times when it was downright painful to watch; a supremely-gifted player blessed with a sweet shooting stroke that somehow became so unhinged it even resulted in the occasional airball.

But Budinger kept working, kept fighting and eventually found the light. Shots started to fall. Confidence came back. And all the while other aspects of his game began to evolve as well. He started to attack the basket with more regularity. His rebound rate increased. And his defense, which suffered nearly as much as his shooting early on, noticeably improved as the season progressed as well. When Budinger moved into the starting lineup after the trade deadline, the Rockets’ offense roared into the stratosphere. So it seemed only appropriate, then, to see him place an exclamation point on his opus of perseverance by wrapping up the season with a career-high 35-point scoring bonanza, illustrating just how far he’d come – and how much higher he still might fly.

The progression of Patrick Patterson: The rookie roller coaster took him all the way to the D-League and back, yet Patterson handled it all with the poise and positive outlook of someone well beyond his 22 years. The proud University of Kentucky product didn’t balk when assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers; instead he accepted the challenge and took full advantage of the opportunity for growth. And when he returned to Houston he arrived ready, willing and able to contribute at the top level, too. His pick-and-pop game is already on point and the range on his jumper is rapidly expanding. His low-post repertoire is limited for now but you can already see the seeds planted in fertile soil that will one day bear fruit. And his high basketball IQ ensures that those defensive rotations that are a step slow today will soon be in lockstep with those of his teammates tomorrow. Patterson is as advertised: a delightful prospect destined to fulfill his promise as a rock-solid two-way player capable of being a fan favorite for years to come.

The class of Courtney Lee: Thoughtful, considerate and articulate off the court; high-flying, dynamic and diligent on it. Lee became the Rockets’ best wing defender this season in addition to becoming the unofficial team leader in gravity-defying defensive rebounds. His athleticism and energy meshed perfectly with Houston’s uptempo attack and this dunk won’t soon be forgotten around these parts. Both on court and off, Courtney Lee is all class.

The motor of Goran Dragic: Fatigue, apparently, is but a mere phantom to Goran Dragic. You see it in the way he sprints down the court for a layup at one end while being the first man down the court to make a play on the ball at the other. Play all 53 minutes in an overtime game? No sweat. Literally. The Rockets’ midseason acquisition at the trade deadline made his mark in Houston by shooting shooting nearly 52 percent from 3-point land and ending the season with his first career triple-double. But his boundless energy and fearless forays helped him make a fabulous first impression, leaving fans hungry to see what else the player nicknamed ‘The Dragon’ has in store.

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