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Power Plays

Rockets prep for Pacers with plenty of questions still left to be answered

MANILA - Every team enters training camp with a laundry list of questions they hope to answer by the start of the regular season. Some of those queries do in fact get resolved in a timely manner. Many, however – and perhaps most – frequently linger into the regular season (and occasionally well beyond). Like most of life’s little quandaries, resolution doesn’t really operate on teams’ preferred timetables.

And so it comes to the surprise of absolutely no one that a week-and-a-half into the Rockets’ 2013-14 calendar ample amounts of mystery and intrigue remain regarding the club’s starting power forward position. Omer Asik hasn’t practiced in more than a week due to a lingering calf strain, so the experiment to see if he can be productively paired with Dwight Howard remains on standby. Greg Smith is still trying to get back to 100 percent after suffering an injury of his own, so that option hasn’t been on the table either. All of which has provided a pair of second-year players, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, with a healthy amount of time to state their respective cases before the judge (Kevin McHale) and jury (Houston’s assistant coaching staff).

Both players had their moments during Saturday’s preseason opener, as Motiejunas largely meshed well with the starting unit and Jones took advantage of his opportunity to be more of a focal point of the offense when operating with the reserves. But if we know anything about the Rockets, it’s that a one-game sample size isn’t ever going to be used as emphatic proof of anything. Not only is nothing yet set in stone, it’s not even been so much as penciled on a Post-It. Plenty of questions still remain and both players have so much to prove.

“I think they had stuff where offensively they did some pretty good things,” McHale said Wednesday when asked to assess the play of Jones and Motiejunas in the team’s preseason opener. “Defensively, though, they both made a lot of mistakes and we’ve got to clean that up.

“It’s a work in progress for both of them. They’re both young guys and they’ve got to figure it out – defense, rebounding, spacing, everything. They’ve got to figure out how they’re going to help this team and what we need them to do with everybody else. It’s a long process. It surely takes more than a week.”

Jones produced the more eye-pleasing stat line Saturday night, pouring in 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting during his 23 minutes of action off the bench. But he also had more of an opportunity to show off his scoring prowess than did Motiejunas and that figures to be the case more often than not for whoever ends up in a reserve role. Because while Houston’s opening night starter at the power forward position might be up in the air, there’s certainly no mystery surrounding the fact that the person manning the four-spot will frequently take a back seat on offense to James Harden, Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons – a reality of which the versatile Kentucky product is well aware.

“Coming off the bench definitely gives me a bigger role with the offense,” says Jones. “I’m fine with either one, whatever Coach has planned for the team to be better and to help us win. I’ve played a lot of roles on different teams and I’m fine with any one as long as it helps the team.

“Different games, my role is going to change depending on who’s hot so I just want to be out there to make the team better each game.”

Motiejunas, meanwhile, acquitted himself well Saturday night with some nifty passes and solid board work. On the defensive end, however, he fouled too often and found himself out of position on occasion as well. The 23-year-old knows that particular part of his game must improve which is why he spent a good chunk of the summer focusing on becoming a better defensive player. He bulked up in order to better handle the pounding that comes from plying one’s trade in the paint and placed a strong emphasis on boosting his foot speed and stamina as well.

Still, these things take time, especially for young bigs attempting to make significant strides in the NBA. Their overall growth tends to be more gradual rather than rapid and it’s not at all unusual for them to need several seasons, or more, before they fully flower (look no further than Indiana center Roy Hibbert for emphatic proof). But Motiejunas is impatient for success and his appetite for the process makes him a solid bet to eventually taste it.

“Getting beat up is making me better every day,” he says. “You’ve got to enjoy it or otherwise you cannot get better, you cannot move forward.

“There is many things that are not nice in basketball. It’s painful sometimes inside (the paint). The extra work is not always something that you really love to do. Sometimes you come back after a trip at 3:00 in the morning and in several hours you’re practicing. Those are things of the will. When it’s just you by yourself practicing and you’ve giving your heart and going all out, I feel pleasure in that.

“It’s a new season and new year. I’m not a rookie anymore. It’s going to feel a little different. I’ve worked a lot on it and hopefully it’s going to pay off.”

And-1s: Preseason basketball is a time for teams to focus squarely on themselves. Relatively little regard is given to the opponent and rightfully so; teams are far too busy trying to make sure they can execute their own schemes and strategies this time of year to pay much mind to what the side across from them is attempting to accomplish.

That said, the Rockets’ opponent during the Global Games does pose quite an interesting test. The Indiana Pacers gave Houston fits a season ago with their suffocating defense built upon their extraordinary team length and a scheme designed to take away two of the most valuable shots in the game: rim attempts and corner 3s.

So the Rockets will certainly come face-to-face with a rather unique challenge during their next two preseason games; a test that is wholeheartedly being embraced by James Harden, who was limited to 25.6 percent shooting while averaging four turnovers a contest during Houston’s two games against the Pacers last season – both of which were one-sided losses.

“I think they gave us the most trouble last year as far as the way they played, especially me,” says Harden. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of facing it early to kind of get me better prepared for the season. And as far as the individual matchup, Paul George is a great player. So I’ll be trying to test what I’ve been working on all summer against one of the best up-and-coming players.

“With teams like that, you have to move the basketball. You have to share the basketball and everybody has to get involved because once you hold the ball, they load up and that’s when they’re great. Then having a threat like Dwight for lobs to the rim is going to make it a lot easier for us.

“We’re still learning from each other, so tomorrow’s going to be a big test for us as far as our opponent and also getting a feel for each other.”

All that having been said, Harden says the area he wants to see his club improve upon the most from its preseason opener is in how they perform on the defensive end.

“I think offense, we’re going to be fine. We’re going to score the ball. It’s just our defense. With the addition of Dwight, that will help us a lot protecting the paint, but as guards we have to make sure we set up a wall and kind of contain our man. If it so happens that our man gets past us, we know we have Dwight back there, but we really need to focus on guarding our man from the beginning.”