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Saturday January 28, 2012 11:35 PM

Taking Care Of Business

Rockets knock off Knicks 97-84 en route to ninth win in ten games

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




HOUSTON - The Rockets took care of business -- simple as that.

Facing a bevy of bruised, battered and frequently brutal teams over the last few weeks, Houston knew it had to make the most of this stretch before the schedule inevitably grew more challenging once again. Sure enough, the Rockets have done just that, winning nine of their last ten games with the latest coming in the form of a thoroughly convincing 97-84 victory over the Knicks that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the final score might indicate.

For the second straight night, Houston’s bench proved key, running roughshod over New York’s overmatched reserves. The Rockets’ bench brigade was simply outstanding from start to finish, scoring 61 points – topping the previous season-high 52 they tallied the night before against Washington – while shooting a scintillating 61.1 percent from the field.

Any discussion of the standouts from the second unit has to begin with the Rockets’ suddenly resuscitated Wildcat connection of Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. The pair of University of Arizona products served up monster encore performances Saturday night as Budinger brought the heat with a team-high 19 points while Hill delivered his second straight double-double to the tune of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Both played significant roles in helping the Rockets recover from another off-kilter opening stanza that saw the team start slowly before finding its stride in the second quarter.

Then there was the play of Goran Dragic, who spearheaded Houston’s attack with his aggressive, attacking style on both ends of the floor. The Rockets’ backup point guard was a dynamo, applying pressure defense and racing up the floor in transition seemingly every time he touched the ball. When the dust settled, Dragic had racked up 16 points and 5 assists, doing more than enough to offset a rare off night from Kyle Lowry.

Add it all up and it meant another relatively stress-free evening for Houston’s starters; none of whom was asked to play more than 30 minutes, marking quite the turnaround from the first few weeks of the season when Head Coach Kevin McHale was frequently forced into keeping his starting five on the floor for extended minutes if he wanted to ensure his team ended the game ahead on the scoreboard. But with the way the bench is playing – and more importantly, producing – McHale is now being forced to make a much more palatable decision when it comes to deciding how to divvy up playing time.  

“Guys are playing well,” he said when asked for his thoughts on the play of the Rockets’ second unit. “I think we’re probably going to have to take a look at maybe going a little deeper into the bench. Those guys have earned it; especially Chase has really stepped up and played very, very well. I’m hoping that we can get that nice mix of guys so that we don’t really have heavy, heavy numbers of minutes (for the starters).”

The other promising takeaway from this weekend’s double dip: The Rockets continue to show real signs of a significant shift in terms of their defensive mentality; something made manifest in the fact that, immediately after the game, General Manager Daryl Morey took to Twitter to commend his club for its best back-to-back defensive performance of the year. True, it occurred against two of the worst offensive teams in the NBA, but even the most hardened observer would have to admit there’s been a tangible difference in the way Houston approaches its work on the defensive side of the floor. After a rocky start, the Rockets have now managed to climb into the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency; a rise that, not surprisingly, has coincided with the club’s similar ascension in the West standings where Houston currently sits in a six-way tie for third overall in the conference.

“We are starting to find our chemistry with one another,” said Budinger. “We are playing a lot better defense. Teams are not shooting over 42 percent against us. We are just playing much better basketball than we did at the beginning of the season and that's all you can ask for with a shortened season like we have.”

Dragic, meanwhile, attributes his team’s increased defensive proficiency to the coaching staff’s endless emphasis on the subject – a message that began at the very start of training camp and one which continues to get hammered home every single day.

“When Kevin took over the team, the first thing in training camp he was saying was we have to get better on defense,” he said. “We started working hard, especially on the defensive end. Some games we shoot bad and still manage to win and it’s because we’ve played really well on the defensive end. Sometimes games you’re not going to hit shots but if you’re not hitting shots you should still play solid on defense because that gives you a chance to win. I think that has to be our mentality for the future if we want to make the playoffs.”

And 1s: After further evaluation by the Rockets medical staff Saturday afternoon, Rockets guard Kevin Martin was diagnosed with inflammation in the heel of his right foot. Martin was held out of the game against the New York Knicks as a precautionary measure and his availability for practices and games continues to be listed as day-to-day.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

(On the play of the bench) “We have good depth. Those guys (Rockets) can play basketball. Like I said, if we can get stops and put those guys in position, they make tremendous plays. If we can get stops, if we can get out in transition, if we are pacing the games, if our shooters are making the shots, we have play makers. The thing that has been really nice with the stretch, if you look at Sammy Dalembert, 14 rebounds in 21 minutes and Jordan (Hill) comes in on 22 minutes and has 11 (rebounds), getting 25 rebounds out of your center position is pretty impressive.”

(On Kyle Lowry) “There's a natural flow to the NBA season when you have a lot of games and you play very well, then you have a little bit of a rough period. I'm not worried about Kyle. Kyle is going to be fine. If we just let him make plays and let him do his thing, we'll be in good shape.”

(On the bench play): Guys are playing well. I think we’re probably going to have to take a look at maybe going a little deeper into the bench. Those guys have earned it; especially Chase has really stepped up and played very, very well. I’m hoping that we can get that nice mix of guys so that we don’t really have heavy, heavy numbers of minutes – 40-plus minutes and stuff. I’d like to keep a lot of those numbers down and give everybody more time and shorter stints but, yeah, I think the bench has done a great job.

GORAN DRAGIC

If you play solid on defense like we did today then you can win a lot of games. That game against Milwaukee, the third quarter we didn’t play a lot of good possessions on defense and that cost us the game. Today, everything went smoothly on offense and defense and we won as a result

(defensive mindset starting to take hold?): When Kevin took over the team, the first thing in training camp he was saying was we have to get better on defense. We started working hard, especially on the defensive end. Some games we shoot bad and still manage to win and it’s because we’ve played really well on the defensive end. Sometimes games you’re not going to hit shots but if you’re not hitting shots you should still play solid on defense because that gives you a chance to win. I think that has to be our mentality for the future if we want to make the playoffs. It takes pressure off our offense, too, to know we don’t have to be perfect. So maybe you shoot the ball with more confidence knowing that if it doesn’t go in you can still get stops on the other end.

COURTNEY LEE

(defensive mindset starting to take hold?): I think it’s good that from training camp and to this point now, Coach has emphasized defense and getting stops and being in help spots. Every game the shots are not always going to fall but the thing you can do is go out there, play hard, control your effort and give 100 percent effort on the defensive end. Once we get everybody focused on that, which everybody is right now, you can see that we’re getting stops and being able to get out and run on the offensive end. The more stops we get, the more offensive possessions we get and the more points we have a chance to score.

(On his contribution) “I just tried to get out there and play as hard as possible. I tried to do every little thing to help the team get the win tonight. With each game, taking it to the next level and the next step, seeing how far I can push it (calf). Today he (Coach McHale) left me out there for an extended period of time and I was trying to push as hard as I could until I got tired and then it (his calf) held up strong today.”

(On his thoughts on the win) “I’m happy about it. Everybody out there, one through the last guy on the bench, went out there and competed and played hard. New York is one of those teams that's going to get up and down and like to shoot quick 3's. We did a good job of getting back in transition. We had that time period during the Wizards game where we lacked in transition defense and we watched film and we touched on a couple of key points today and we executed today.”

CHASE BUDINGER

(On everybody stepping up tonight) “Everybody stepped up last night and tonight. When you have a player like Kevin Martin that goes down, you need everybody to step up and I think tonight that's what happened. Goran (Dragic) played well. Jordan (Hill) played well. Courtney (Lee) played well. So, we had a lot of guys that stepped up tonight and that's why we got the win.”

(On the Rockets improved play of late) “We are starting to find our chemistry with one another. We are playing a lot better defense. Teams are not shooting over 42 percent against us. We are just playing much better basketball than we did at the beginning of the season and that's all you can ask for with a shortened season like we have.”

JORDAN HILL

(On the Rockets preventing the Knicks from getting offensive rebounds in the 3rd quarter) “Basically, we just hit our men, go after every rebound because they (Knicks) were definitely getting a lot of offensive rebounds that hurt us a lot. We started getting all the boards, most of the boards.”

(On defending Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler) “Amar’e is athletic, a scorer. It was definitely a good challenge for us. Tyson (Chandler) is long, tall, athletic, a big that can rebound and block shots. We came out and held our own.”

NEW YORK KNICKS COACH MIKE D’ANTONI

(On the Knicks play) “It’s not puzzling – was just plain awful. We just can’t make a shot and were not real good. We were just looking for a spark to try and turn things around. I was looking for someone to run the pick and roll, or just make plays, or get people open for shots. Amar’e was really the only scorer we had on the floor, when he gets tired and comes off, we just can’t get quality shots.”

(On the Rockets bench) “Tonight the bench was the difference, overall, I don’t know. Their bench killed us, we had a nice thing going the first half, and then their bench came in and really caught fire. In the third quarter we scored only 13 points (14), it’s hard in this league, on the road when you hit only 35% to win the game.”

AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE

(On the Knicks loss) “Losing is by far the most frustrating, the thing about the stretch right here, is we don’t want to get used to it. We need to find a way to get over the hump, losing is definitely not what we set out to do. We have to find a way to get better. Right now we just have to find ways to get out of this rut. We have opportunities to win, but we just can’t put it out. I understand that we have a young team, but we have to find ways to win. We have to control the game.”

TYSON CHANDLER

(The Knicks problem) “I do not know, our offense is really struggling when you only shoot thirty-some percent, it puts way to much pressure on the offense. Other team(s) seems to gain confidence and then they start making all of their shots. It’s tough losing to teams you were supposed to beat. I though our energy and our effort was there last night. Maybe, it was just ‘fool’s gold.’ I am baffled I do not know what to say.”

TONEY DOUGLAS

(On the game) “We have to figure it out and get things together; we have to have more energy, every night. Houston played well; you have to give them credit. They did there job and we didn’t t do ours.”

NOTES

The Rockets took a 97-84 victory over the Knicks tonight. Houston now owns seven straight home wins over New York (2/12/06-1/28/12). Houston limited New York to just 34-of-89 (.382) from the field, including 5-of-26 (.192) from 3-point range.

Houston followed up its largest margin of victory this season, 103-76 (+27) last night vs. Washington (1/27/12), with a 97-84 win tonight. The Rockets have now swept their last three sets of back-to-back outings: 103-89 vs. Sacramento (1/13/12) and 107-105 OT vs. Portland (1/14/12), as well as 114-106 at Washington (1/16/12) and 97-80 vs. Detroit (1/17/12).

The Rockets have recorded 20 consecutive victories when holding an opponent under 90 points (last loss: 81-84 on 3/3/10 vs. Sacramento), which ranks tied for the third longest active streak in the NBA.

The Houston reserves registered another big outing tonight, notching a season-high 61 bench points, 18 total rebounds and 10 combined assists. The Rockets bench also totaled 52 points, 34 boards and nine assists last night vs. Washington (1/27/12).

The Rockets recorded a season-best 33 second-quarter points tonight, surpassing their previous high of 31 done twice prior. The second quarter has favored Houston is recent meetings with New York. The Rockets rang up 32 points in the second stanza to take a 58-52 lead into the break last year at New York (11/14/10). Houston also recorded a 2009-10 season-high 45 second-quarter points at New York (3/21/10) and scored 35 second-quarter points (12-24 FG, 5-8 3FG, 6-6 FT) in 2008-09 at New York (1/26/09).

Chase Budinger, who netted a season-high 21 points (8-14 FG, 4-6 3FG) to go with a season-best eight rebounds vs. Washington (1/27/12), again topped the Rockets with 19 points (7-12 FG, 2-4 3FG) tonight.

Goran Dragic registered 16 points (6-8 FG) and a team-high five assists tonight. Dragic also had a game-high seven assists last night vs. Washington (1/27/12).

Samuel Dalembert recorded seven points (3-6 FG), a game-high 14 boards and four blocks tonight. Dalembert has now posted multiple-block performances in six straight games (1/19/12-1/28/12). It stands as the longest such streak for the Rockets since an eight-game run by Yao Ming back in 2008-09 (3/4/09-3/18/09).

Jordan Hill, who notched 10 points (4-11 FG) and 10 rebounds off the bench last night, posted his second consecutive double-double with 14 points (6-7 FG) and 11 boards tonight. It marked his fourth double-double of 2011-12, which doubles the two total he had over his first two seasons combined (2009-11).

Luis Scola had another 12 points (6-13 FG) and six rebounds tonight. Scola has now reached double-figure scoring in eight straight games.

Courtney Lee scored nine of his 14 points (6-12 FG) to lead Houston’s third-quarter surge.

Amaré Stoudemire finished with 23 points (10-20 FG), eight rebounds and two blocks tonight. Stoudemire averaged 25.0 points and 6.5 rebounds in his two meetings against Houston last season.

Tyson Chandler had 14 points (5-7 FG) and 11 boards tonight. Almost a year to the day, Chandler led seven Mavericks in double-digit scoring with 21 points (5-8 FG, 11-12 FT) and 15 rebounds against the Rockets at Dallas (1/27/11).

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