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Rockets Make Magic Disappear

April 02, 2013 1:38 am EDT

Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin help carry Houston to 111-103 win over Orlando

HOUSTON - Every once in awhile there comes a night when everything comes together so swimmingly and with such synchronicity that even the mere possibility of something going wrong seems utterly unfathomable. A bizarro form of Murphy’s Law manifests itself. Caution gets thrown to the wind. Fans start doing the wave. All appears right with the world.

For nearly three quarters Monday night, the Rockets inhabited that rarified, magical zone while building a 25-point lead over Orlando. Omer Asik dominated to such an extent he displayed no qualms while taking and making a 22-footer. Jeremy Lin breezed through the Magic’s defense, dropping dimes and wreaking havoc with the sleight of hand of a man of many secrets. Francisco Garcia sat outside the arc and drained one three-pointer after another. Donatas Motiejunas rose up and summarily swatted Tobias Harris’ dunk attempt. Houston was missing its two leading scorers – James Harden (sore right foot) and Chandler Parsons (food poisoning) both sat out – and their absence could not have been any more inconspicuous the second the game tipped off and the Rockets raced out to a 27-9 lead.

The fourth quarter, of course, was a different story. The Rockets relaxed and ran low on wizardry while Orlando’s magicians started showing a few tricks of their own. Houston head coach Kevin McHale kept his bench unit in the whole way and things got a little too close for comfort when Orlando crept within five in the final minute with several chances to creep closer still. It seemed a rather ill fitting way to wrap up a night that had produced such a smorgasbord of highlights and positive storylines. But then again, reality has a funny way of ruining some of the most powerful sorcery. So what if the spell had been broken? By the end of the evening, Omer Asik had still racked up 22 points and 18 rebounds, Jeremy Lin had still compiled 19 points and 11 assists, and the Rockets had still moved to 41-33 on the year after putting the finishing touches on a 111-103 victory.

“We didn’t finish the game the way we wanted to and we lost a lot of our intensity,” McHale admitted after the game. “We can’t do that. But it’s our 41st win of the year. We’re 41-33 and I promise you if you would have said on the last day of training camp that on April 1 you could be 41-33, I would have said, let’s just skip to April 1.’”

Though they may have liked to at times, the Rockets are far better off for having not skipped any of the occasionally painful steps that got them to this point. To be sure, the roller coaster that now points upwards once again has not always been a thrill ride. The seven-game losing streak in January was more like an acute and wretched bout of motion sickness, in fact. But the lessons learned during that stretch and every other bump in the road – even including Monday night’s less than stellar fourth quarter – are the exact reasons why the Rockets are where they are right now, standing tall as a potential playoff team capable of making up for the loss of two of its best players and still emerging victorious.

There is a style of play Houston must employ in order to be successful and far more often than not, the speed bumps the Rockets hit when they veer too far off course are reminders of the path this team must tread if it truly wants to accomplish the lofty goals it laid out before the season began. Whether Houston is pounding the ball inside to Asik and Greg Smith, or stomping opponents into submission with its spread pick-and-roll attack, the Rockets must play with pace, space the floor and own the paint on both sides of the ball. Asik and Smith were brilliant handling the latter Monday night while Lin and Garcia made Houston’s pace-and-space game hum to perfection. The key names might change game to game, but the characteristics of winning Rockets basketball remain the same regardless.

As the season has worn on, the players have increasingly embraced that formula. And make no mistake, their total buy-in has been essential to making this grand experiment work. But so, too, is time. Fitting the puzzle pieces perfectly together and making everything work on a consistent basis is not an overnight project. For proof, peer over to the east where Miami assembled one of the most talented trios of all time and still needed nearly two years to start tapping into its full potential.

And while the Heat’s model is unique in so many ways, it still provides an important lesson in what life can be like on occasion, especially in year one, when pairing two players who are at their most comfortable with the ball in their hands – something Lin and Harden have in common. Houston’s starting backcourt has had plenty of nights when they have carved up defenses together and plenty of others during which they have struggled to find the proper balance between their own personal playmaking skill. It has been and continues to be a work in progress. Neither player, however, harbors any doubt that the pieces will eventually slide and settle into place. And they know, too, that this team is never better than it is when their respective games are rolling at the same time. 

“We can play off of each other,” said Lin. “We can run two pick-and-rolls; one on one side of the floor then swing-swing it to another. It’s just a matter of creating that structure and that spacing that we need. Sometimes we get a little bogged down when we have me, Chandler and James all in there.

“Tonight I was the point guard and I wasn’t just a point guard on the team I was the point guard and it was nice. But we’re a much more dangerous team with James. The fact of the matter is we’ve got to be able to do what we both are really good at together at the same time for each other. It’s not that we don’t want it – it’s just we’re trying to figure it out and it takes time.”

Reality is such a pain sometimes, isn’t it? Always demanding so much in the way of patience and perseverance. If only those magical moments of infallibility would stretch across a lifetime. As Monday night’s game hammered home, however, that’s not the way it works. The good news, however: the Rockets have repeatedly shown throughout the season that they don’t require any sort of special sorcery to enjoy success. They have a style that both suits and works for them, and the pieces necessary to win even when not at full strength. Now all they need is time.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

(On how close you were to putting Lin and Asik back in the fourth quarter) “I was getting pretty close. I kept on thinking we just got to get a stop and get a little more separation. I had rested them so long I thought surely hope I don't have to go back to them. We're way down on bodies. Those guys have to learn how to play and win games. You've got to put them in those situations. Out of that group, someone’s going to have to play coming down the stretch. So I thought, let's give them some experience. I thought Pat (Patrick Beverley) made a big shot, Greg (Smith) had a big block down there but most of what it was, was defensively. We just quit doing what we did earlier. We were going under on picks when we were supposed to be going over.”

(using Omer and Greg together when back to full strength) If we’ll move, read and react I think we’ll be able to play those two. The big trouble is (Orlando) started fronting them and then we just started trying to jam it to them. We’ve got to have an offensive set where we look in there, then get off it and start playing our style which is spread, move, drive, kick – we were good at that all game long.

We didn’t finish the game the way we wanted to and we lost a lot of our intensity – we can’t do that. But it’s our 41st win of the year. We’re 41-33 and I promise you if you would have said on the last day of training camp that on April 1 you could be 41-33, I would have said, let’s just skip to April 1.’

(On teams play over the last few games) “We've all got to play with pace and movement all the time as a team. I thought that the two games where we really struggled against Indiana and Memphis we're slowed down, we had no pace, no space and no thrust. We just didn't play our style but we've done that periodically throughout the year. It’s not like a revelation for anybody that's watching us.”

(on the team’s playing style with Greg Smith as the starting power forward): If you’re going to play Greg then you have to try to attack (opponents) on the inside and try to use Greg’s brawn as opposed to having to chase guys around the perimeter all the time.

JEREMY LIN

(on the starting lineup with Smith as the starting power forward): I think defensively it’s solid. They get a lot of rebounds, they protect the paint and I think that’s really important. They both have the ability to finish around the rim and create a lot of matchup problems. Not every team has a big ‘4’-man who can guard either one of them in the post.

(incorporating his own play and production when Harden returns): My touches and usage rate will go down, but I think the key is to make sure that when those touches do come that it looks like it’s in the system that we had tonight. What I mean by that is just like, if I’m coming off a pick-and-roll, we’ve got to keep the same spacing, we’ve got to keep the same structure. We can play off of each other. We can run two pick-and-rolls; one on one side of the floor then swing-swing it to another. It’s just a matter of creating that structure and that spacing that we need. Sometimes we get a little bogged down when we have me, Chandler and James all in there.

(a little more comfortable for you to have the ball in your hands?) Tonight I was the point guard and I wasn’t just a point guard on the team I was the point guard and it was nice. But we’re a much more dangerous team with James. The fact of the matter is we’ve got to be able to do what we both are really good at together at the same time for each other. It’s not that we don’t want it – it’s just we’re trying to figure it out and it takes time. When I’m out of the game and he gets to go I get to see what he’s capable of doing and he’s been hurt and now I’ve been able to do a little more.

(On the Rockets offensive play to start the game)  “We just played together and we went back to what worked, which was a couple of post-ups and they (Magic) played small. We tried to keep attacking that and then we played defense, got the rebound and ran and just played the right way. I think that it just (came) naturally, the ball would go around and find everybody at some point.”

(On the growth of Omer Asik offensively) “He has grown a lot. He really has. Just even little things like being in the right place at the right time or finishing quickly before the defense gets there or catching balls that he might not have caught before. He has definitely come a long way.”

GREG SMITH

(On 25-point lead dwindling to 5) “I think the guys got comfortable, not focused on getting our running offense and getting stops. We had to talk to them, the second unit, tell them keep pushing it down their throat, don’t let them come back in. But I want to give credit to the other guys (Orlando Magic) on the court, they came out and make shots, they ran their offense and never gave up. But we controlled the end and got the win.”

(On punishing them on the inside) “We punished them down low, was wearing him (Tobias Harris) out so he wouldn’t be able to do it and used most of his abilities outside, being quicker than me and trying to outthink me because he was so tired. I was beating him down low. He had to use his other abilities and he had to shoot more so that’s what I was trying to do the entire game. Trying to beat him down low, use my shoulders and my strength and wear him down and it kind of worked to my benefit.”

OMER ASIK

(On if he was intending to be aggressive) “Yes. We needed the chance to score inside and we needed it to be easy for us. Greg (Smith) and I kept attacking the rim and tried to score, that’s all we tried to do. “

(On if his outside shooting is a new part of his game) “We’ll see. I don’t think it’s part of my game, it just happened this game. I just try working on it and we’ll see what happens.”

(On the combination of him and Greg Smith on the floor) “That’s always coach’s decision. I’m always okay with what they say and I always respect whatever they say. We both got called tonight, we’ll see.”

(On how important this win was without two starters) “Of course we always know we have more than enough to win in this room. It’s like when some guys go down, the other guys have to step up and that’s what happened tonight. Of course we know that two of our starters didn’t play especially with James (Harden) being our star player, but some of us stepped up and got the job done.”

CARLOS DELFINO

(On how important the win was without the two starters) “It was great. We were talking about it before the game, about how we need to win no matter how the first three quarters come out because the last quarter we came out relaxed and the last minutes, it shouldn’t happen like that, but it’s a great win and it’s a hard one, but we’re still working and getting better and looking forward to the next game."

FRANCISCO GARCIA

(On the key to the win) “We wanted to come out aggressive and play defense and that’s what we did as a team and we were successful.”

(On the different dimension Omer Asik and Greg Smith give the Rockets when on the court together) “They are pretty tough down there, especially defensively. They are pretty good defensively. Greg Smith is showing that he can post down there. They both can rebound. They both can do a lot of stuff, so it’s good for our team.”

ORLANDO MAGIC COACH JACQUE VAUGHN

(On the team’s second half play) “I think we gave up 30 points in each of the first two quarters and that was the game right there. We didn't have a stop (defensively) on the first 11 possessions of the game. We have to have a better mindset and focus going into the game. You could see the difference in the second half. We were able to convert on the offensive end and also play defense. We thought coming in we would get looks. We scored over a hundred last game at our place against them and we felt that we would get good looks but it was a matter of us not getting stops. We had to fight uphill for the rest of the night.”

(On Maurice Harkless' play) “He was really good on both ends of the floor. He is playing with a lot more confidence and it is great to see him handle the basketball, shooting shots with no hesitation, attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line for us. He is also doing it on the defensive end. We are asking a lot of him but I think he can handle it.”

MAURICE HARKLESS

(On first half, first second half play) “We didn't come out with the right mindset and gave up too many points in transition, 66 points in the first half were way too many and we had to do a better job. We decided to come together and go out there and get stops and that’s the biggest thing and where it all starts at. Everybody was talking at halftime and we came out and played together and were trying to get stops.”

(On the comeback) “These guys don't quit. No one on this team quits. We've been in a lot of games this year but we always fight back. I love playing with these guys.”

(On his play) “I was just seeing gaps and I was attacking them. I was getting to the basket and then I was knocking down my shots.”

TOBIAS HARRIS

(On the team’s early start) “We definitely started off slow and they got on us fast and they dominated us inside. You have to have you have to have your mind right and be ready to go. We have to bring it from the get go. When a team makes their run, we have to come back and attack them. They basically dominated us. We fought hard until the end of the game but we just weren't able to come back. If we started the game in the first quarter like we played in the second half, it would've been a whole different game.”

(On the Magic's recent play) “We have a lot of heart and we have a lot of passion and we're going to give a team our best effort. It's a 100% each and every night and if we continue to do that, we'll be a great team in the future.”

BENO UDRIH

(On the game) “I think they scored (to start the game) like 11 times in a row in the first quarter. We have to be stronger just foul somebody, make them go the free throw line, just help each there, communicate. We definitely didn't have the start we should've had. Houston has a great team, a playoff team and we can’t afford that to happen. If we'd played like we did the last two quarters, we would've given ourself a chance. We were just at too deep in a hole to come back.

(On how tough it is to come back from a big deficit) “The game is 48 minutes and we can't deserve to play 24 minutes. We are a young team so we just have to be aggressive on the defensive end and make a stand and defend better in the first half.”

(On Omer Asik's play) “He's big and he sets good screens and he rolls to the basket and he usually has an advantage to get an offensive rebound and he just plays very hard. He is a good player and has definitely improved and he played great tonight. Unfortunately, we couldn't find anybody to help the bigs trying to defend him.”

NOTES

The Rockets outlasted the Magic by a 111-103 score tonight, which gave Houston its first season series sweep (2-0) over Orlando since 2008-09.

Houston led by as much as 25 points tonight and never surrendered a lead despite a second-half rally by Orlando. It was the fourth time this season that the Rockets did not give up the lead in a game.

The Rockets registered 54 boards tonight, giving Houston eight 50-plus rebounding games on the season (Rockets record: 6-2).

Houston handed out 27 assists on the night and scored 60 points in the paint. The Rockets now hold a record of 15-4 this season when dishing out 27 or more assists. Houston has also recorded 60-plus points in the paint eight times this season (record: 6-2).

The Rockets limited the Magic to just 14 first-quarter points (.263, 5-19 FG) tonight, which marked Houston’s opponent season low for points in the opening stanza (prev. low: 15 on 11/10/12 vs. Detroit).

Houston turned the ball over just nine times tonight, which marked its third single-digit turnover game of the season.

Omer Asik recorded a career-high-tying 22 points (11-13 FG) and 18 rebounds tonight, which matched his career-best 22 points (8-13 FG, 6-7 FT) at Indiana (1/18/13). Asik actually recorded a double-double by halftime with 14 points (7-9 FG) and 12 boards over the opening two quarters. It marked the third time this season Asik has registered a double-double before halftime.

Jeremy Lin finished with 19 points (8-16 FG, 2-4 3FG) and a season-high-tying 11 assists tonight, which marked his eighth double-double of the season. The Rockets now hold a record of 16-5 on the season when Lin reaches at least and eight assists in a game.

Francisco Garcia made his first start with the Rockets tonight, replacing Chandler Parsons (illness). Garcia, who came off the bench with 15 points (5-10 FG, 3-7 3FG) in the last game vs. the L.A. Clippers (3/30/13), had 14 points (5-6 FG, 4-5 3FG), five assists and three blocks tonight.

James Anderson totaled nine points (3-12 FG, 2-2 FT) and matched his career-best eight rebounds. Anderson set his career high with eight boards vs. Golden State (2/5/13).

Maurice Harkless led six Magic players in double-figure scoring with a career-high 28 points (10-18 FG, 2-4 3FG, 6-7 FT) and six rebounds tonight. Harkless has now recorded 20-plus points four times this season, including his previous career-high 25 points vs. Oklahoma City (3/22/13).

Tobias Harris chipped in with 18 points (6-17 FG, 6-7 FT), 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots tonight. Harris has now scored in double figures 17 times with Orlando. Harris also had 27 points (11-15 FG, 3-5 3FG) and 10 rebounds against the Rockets at Orlando (3/1/13).

Nikola Vucevic added 12 points (5-19 FG), 13 rebounds and two blocks tonight, while Beno Udrih had 17 points (6-10 FG, 3-3 3FG) and 10 assists to give the Magic three players with a double-double. The last opponent with three players with a double-double in the same game against the Rockets was on 3/17/13 vs. Golden State – Stephen Curry (29 points, 11 assists), Andrew Bogut (12 points, 12 rebounds) and David Lee (10 points, 10 rebounds).