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Thursday February 9, 2012 3:52 AM

Rockets Rise To The Occasion

With big boost from bench, Houston fends off Portland rally for 103-96 win

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




PORTLAND, OR - The similarities were downright eerie: the 19-point lead; the masterful first half; the rabid crowd roaring as the home team staged its furious second-half rally.

Just one week before, the Rockets had seen the exact same nightmare scenario unfold during a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking loss in San Antonio. And as the Rose Garden decibels reached a crescendo Wednesday night, it was impossible not to feel a debilitating sense of déjà vu. Disaster loomed as another catastrophic collapse beckoned.

But rather than give in to those demons, the Rockets went about the business of exorcizing them instead, turning the tables on the Trailblazers to record perhaps their most impressive victory of the season to date.

Houston’s 103-96 win was made possible thanks to a spectacular effort from the team’s second unit; a group which poured in 66 points to help make up for a third quarter injury to Kyle Lowry and off nights from starters Samuel Dalembert and Kevin Martin. The Rockets’ bench was superb throughout; dominating in the second quarter when the team began to build its big lead and carrying the load in the final frame to turn the tide after the Blazers had come roaring all the way back.

“Our bench was fantastic tonight,” said Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale. “Those guys have been playing really well. They’ve had great practices; they’ve taken it right to the first-team many days. They’re competitors; they went out there and attacked.”

Houston’s reserves gave a powerful hint that their presence would be felt early on by playing a massive role in the Rockets’ first half performance that was nothing short of a masterpiece of offensive execution. The ball movement was sublime and the shooting superb; the end result of which was often one swish after another. The Rockets repeatedly roasted the league’s 5th-ranked defense with Drew Brees-like precision, surgically picking apart Portland’s helpless defenders to the tune of 60 first-half points.

But better than the actual number itself was the way in which those points were accrued. The Rockets seemingly made the right decision and extra pass every time down the court, racking up 20 first-half assists on their way to shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and 7-12 (58.3%) from beyond the arc.

The third quarter started with more of the same as Houston’s lead ballooned to as many as 19 points just a few minutes in. But as soon as Portland Coach Nate McMillan made the decision to go small, the Blazers began to amp up the defensive pressure and suddenly all that beautiful ball movement the Rockets had displayed en route to establishing their big lead disappeared beneath a tidal wave of turnovers.

Houston coughed up the ball a whopping 10 times in the third period – and a season-high 23 times overall – and, not surprisingly, its advantage dwindled accordingly. Making matters worse, Kyle Lowry was forced to exit the game after injuring his right elbow while attempting to make a pass, leaving the reeling Rockets even further in the lurch.

It took a mere ten minutes of game time for Houston’s lead to be fully eradicated while bedlam reigned in the Rose Garden. All the while, the phantoms of San Antonio joined in the chorus, howling right along with the fans.

So the Rockets’ second unit simply made it their mission to shut them all up.

Goran Dragic went into attack mode, penetrating and producing a 3-point play that put Portland back on its heels. Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger made it rain from downtown. And Patrick Patterson, meanwhile, took care of the dirty work down low, anchoring the Rockets’ interior defense, cleaning up on the glass and chipping in with the occasional midrange jumper when necessary.

By the time their work was done, the arena had gone silent as thousands of stunned Blazers fans streamed toward the exits in disbelief. It was a moment worth savoring precisely because it had been well-earned; this young Rockets team growing up, overcoming adversity and doing away with the demons of the past by playing poised, unselfish, total team basketball.

“What I’ve learned in my two years is you have to forget about the past games and just move forward,” said Chase Budinger, who continued his recent run of strong play by scoring a game-high 22 points. “The chemistry level is great for the second unit right now. We play for each other, we’re moving the ball offensively, defensively we’re helping each other – it’s why we’ve been playing so well these last couple games because of that chemistry we’re playing with.”

And 1s: Lowry's injury is being called a "strained right elbow." He admitted to being very sore after the game but wouldn't put a timetable on his recovery, saying he will get treatment and see how the elbow responds before making a determination on his status for Thursday's game in Phoenix. He's being listed as day-to-day.

Earlier Wednesday, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced that the team has signed center/forward Greg Smith from Houston’s single-affiliation NBA D-League partner Rio Grande Valley. It marks the first GATORADE Call-Up of Smith’s career, as well as the 21st overall in the D-League this season. Earlier today, Smith was selected as a 2012 NBA D-League All-Star, but must be on an active NBA D-League roster to play in the game. The Rockets waived forward Jeff Adrien to make room on the roster.
 
Smith (6-10, 250, Fresno State) has averaged 16.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.28 blocks and 1.06 steals in 18 games (14 starts) with the Vipers in 2011-12. The current D-League leader in field goal percentage (.677, 130-192 FG), Smith also stands tied for third in the league in double-doubles (eight), eighth in rebounding average (8.3) and 10th in blocks per game (1.28).
 
In his first stint with the Rockets, Smith averaged 1.5 points and 2.0 rebounds in two preseason games with Houston before being waived on Dec. 22, 2011. In college, Smith averaged 11.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game as a sophomore last season at Fresno State. He was also the 2009-10 WAC Freshman of the Year, which was voted on by the WAC head coaches.
 
Adrien (6-7, 243, Connecticut) averaged 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in eight games with Houston.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

Our bench was fantastic tonight. I thought Sammy did a really nice job early getting into Aldridge and not letting him get a rhythm. Luis was 5-for-5 right off the bat. So it was just a nice, all-around good team win.

(on the second unit): Those guys have been playing really well. They’ve had great practices; they’ve taken it right to the first-team many days. They’re competitors; they went out there and if we can just attack the pressure – when they had us on our heels a little bit, that’s when we get in trouble – but when we’re in attack mode we got good shots. Even when we missed, they were good shots.

(did you contemplate going back to Martin & Dalembert down the stretch?): Kind of. But (the second unit) was playing really well and you know how it is – we’ve got a team that, when guys are playing well you’ve got to reward them.

KYLE LOWRY

(on the injury): I tried to throw a pass to Jordan on a cut and I just kind of hyper-extended it, strained it a little bit. It’s real sore.

(duration): I just have to do treatment. I don’t want to sit out too many games; I don’t want to sit out any games at all, so I’ll see how it feels tomorrow morning, get a lot of treatment tonight, and see how it feels.

GORAN DRAGIC

(on the second unit): Everybody played well. It’s tough to watch from the bench when you’re up 15 points and the lead is going down, down, down, then suddenly you have to go into the game and you just have to just try to play hard, especially on the defensive end. You know they’re going to pressure us … so we just kept on attacking the paint, penetrate, kick to the roll-out, and we did a good job of that.

(on what a win like this means): It means a lot, especially for the future. It shows that you’re good enough from the bench if you can play strong and fast. Today we really played well on defense and when we had to score we did it.

(San Antonio game cross your mind?): No. Not anymore (laughs). I need new (memories).

CHASE BUDINGER

(San Antonio game cross your mind?): No. What I’ve learned in my two years is you have to forget about the past games and just move forward.

(playing so much better – just confidence?): Nothing’s changed in my game. I just found my role on this team; I knew I had to come off the bench and just be aggressive and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

The chemistry level is great for the second unit right now. We play for each other, we’re moving the ball offensively, defensively we’re helping each other – it’s why we’ve been playing so well these last couple games because of that chemistry we’re playing with.

PATRICK PATTERSON

On the bench’s play tonight: “That’s always a good thing whenever the second unit can give the starters a rest whenever we have a game the next day. It was an overall great performance from the starters all the way down to the people on the bench. I think each person should be pleased with their play, and overall this was a team win.”

On the Trail Blazers’ comeback: “We were missing shots. It seemed like they started pressing us a little bit. We started turning the ball over too much. I think we rushed shots on offense a little bit. Maybe two passes and a jump shot rather than sharing the ball like we did in the first half. And they just started hitting shots. They made a great push, but I thought we held our ground, kept fighting and we got this win.”

PORTLAND HEAD COACH NATE McMILLAN

What was most frustrating? “Really the whole game. We started off basically scrapping the game plan from the start. We never defended them right from the start. That team was scoring pretty easily 60 points in the first half, 30 both quarters. So the first unit, their pick and rolls they pretty much got what they wanted. We’ve got to work harder defensively. The start of the game, you establish yourself both offensively and defensively. We never did that.”

On stretch in third quarter where Portland made a run: “Now we’re scrambling and it’s almost like flipping a switch. For our guys, we’ve got to play the same way regardless of which unit is on the floor. We’ve got to have an offensive unit and a defensive unit and they’ve got to play both ways. What we’re doing is we’re getting a team out there that at times we can’t score and then at times we need defense. You can’t play that way. You’ve got to be able to play both ends of the floor so that you can have that balance.”

Did players ignore the game plan? “No, no – I thought they came out very aggressive. We weren’t very aggressive defensively and they ran their offense hard. Both units, their second unit scored 60-plus points in this game so it was both units that were scoring. We basically went to a small unit for offense in the second half and were able to get ourselves back into the game to try and scramble and get scoring.”

Was there a letdown after Monday’s game? “We’ve got a game. That game we’ve got to put behind us. We knew that Houston is playing good basketball. Shouldn’t be, shouldn’t be a letdown. You’ve got to put it behind you and get yourself ready before going out on the road.”

On rebounding disparity: “Rebounding to me is a hustle part of the game. That ball is free, anybody can go get it and we’ve got to go get it. Sometimes we assume that someone else is going to get the board and we start to go the other way. We’ve got to get everybody into the paint to help on the boards.”

JAMAL CRAWFORD

On trouble on the fastbreak: “We’ve got to do a better job. I think we have to get more spacing. I think we’re getting into a situation where we’re kind of close, when it’s a steal or whatever, we’re coming down where one guy can kind of guard two people so we’ve just got to get our spacing together.”

On getting back to the basics: “We did talk about it. We talked about just getting back to doing things basically simple – simplifying some things and getting back to our foundations. We didn’t come out like that. It’s disheartening for sure. We’ve got to get on our horse and face the adversity.”

LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE

Describing game: “A tough loss. We definitely started off slow, fought back in the game late and then had some turnovers and some miscues and they made some shots down the stretch.”

On team’s position overall: “We haven’t been consistent. Definitely have to be more consistent. We were taking care of home court then we dropped two at home now we’ve got to try to go out and win two on the road. We’ve just got to get it together, we’ve just got to figure it out. We played good in the first half or the second half. We haven’t put together a 48 minute game in a while.”

On play tonight: “I felt sick coming into the game and I thought I was going to feel better but my body, I just couldn’t get going. I was trying to fight through it but I couldn’t get going.”

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