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Rockets Show Size Matters

Houston uses small-ball lineups to manhandle Mavs en route to 100-95 win

HOUSTON - Instant analysis and observations from Houston’s 100-95 win over Dallas Monday night at Toyota Center:

- Tonight’s game represented the start of the investigation into one of the more intriguing questions surrounding the 2013-14 Houston Rockets season: that query, of course, being the one that centers upon the viability of a Dwight Howard-Omer Asik simultaneous frontcourt pairing. Plenty of theories and hypotheticals have been floated forth on the subject; tonight the Rockets got to sweep those aside and gain some real life results from this fascinating hoops experiment.

And though there will undoubtedly be much to discuss, dissect and analyze from those results – especially since tonight’s opponent featured one of the preeminent stretch fours in NBA history – perhaps nothing will be more important than remembering that regardless of what transpired this evening, it will amount to little more than the first trial balloon in Houston’s sure-to-be-rigorous research of which lineups it will be able to lean upon the most – and during what situations – when the games actually start counting in the standings.

- The early results yielded a mixed bag for the roll out of the Rockets’ supersized frontcourt (sorry, just can’t bring myself to call it the Twin Towers at this point; 11-year-old me is still far too loyal to Dream and Ralph). Most glaringly, there were some missed assignments on the defensive end which, somewhat surprisingly given Houston’s beef and rim protection on the floor, allowed Dallas to convert a bevy of buckets in the painted area early on while the Mavs raced out to a 33-25 first quarter lead after shooting 56 percent from the floor.

It’s at this point that it’s worth noting that during his pre-game meeting with the media, Head Coach Kevin McHale mentioned that his primary early concerns with playing Asik and Howard together were focused far more on the defensive end; he knows this team can score points with myriad configurations on the court – the biggest issue regarding the sustained, long-term success of an Asik-Howard combo is far more likely to be the recalibration each big will have to ease into after spending several years honing their defensive instincts and responsibilities at the center position. That’s not impossible by any means, but such transitions do take time and prior to tonight, these two players have basically had all of one practice to share the floor with each other in anything even remotely resembling game situations.

- Houston’s experimentation continued in the second quarter, though the trials attempted in that period consisted far more of delving deeper into the world of small-ball. Given that Asik’s injury occurred during the opening weekend of training camp and he only just returned to practice late last week, it’s not at all surprising that the Rockets would be far more comfortable surrounding its big men with shooters rather than playing them simultaneously at this point.

And sure enough, the preseason domination that we’ve seen for extended stretches from Houston when they fan shooters around one big man in the middle continued almost as soon as the Rockets opted to return to that route. Pick any combo you please: Parsons and Casspi; Parsons and Garcia; Lin and Beverley; you name it – Houston has just carved up opponents this month when forcing them into a series of pick-your-poison decisions on the defensive end. From that perspective, the Rockets’ coaching whiteboard has come to life exactly the way one would have hoped when camp began: With Dwight down low and Harden unleashing destruction from the perimeter, Houston’s offense is nigh unstoppable for defenses that also have to account for the damage Lin, Parsons, Beverley, Casspi and Garcia can deliver from downtown. In related news, the Rockets are now shooting better than 41 percent from beyond the 3-point arc up to this point in the preseason.

So in other words: while Houston’s supersized lineup obviously will need more work and reps, it’s safe to say the Rockets’ small-ball permutations are regular season ready.

- Tonight’s customary James Harden-is-really-good update: Throughout the preseason, the 24-year-old has looked much as he did all summer while playing pick-up: That is to say, he appears as if he can get his anytime he wants. Harden hasn’t forced a thing this month and that, combined with his out-of-this-world 3-point shooting (he’s 16-29 from deep during the preseason) has taken his already über-efficient game to even higher levels.

Harden mentioned after the game how easily the game is coming for him right now, and it's little wonder why: With Howard occupying attention down low while the rest of the Rockets' flamethrowing perimeter threats knocks down everything in sight, what we're seeing right now is essentially akin to the difference in Adrian Peterson facing an eight-man front every snap versus him having the opportunity to consistently go to work against a defense that has to be just as wary of playing the pass. Gone are the days of loading up a brick wall on the way into the paint. Harden has so many options, he's been able to simply "pick a lane" and make magic happen. 

- Jeremy Lin got off to a slow start defensively tonight, but he put on a highlight reel worthy passing clinic in the second half which included a behind-the-back beauty to Donatas Motiejunas for a fastbreak layup and an even more delicious dish to Asik earlier in the fourth quarter. Grantland’s Zach Lowe, among others, has pointed this out before, but few players deliver legitimate no-look passes with quite the same aesthetic flair as does Lin. Oh, and in more impactful news – at least from a team perspective – his stints pairing with Patrick Beverley appeared particularly effective tonight.

- Can’t escape without mentioning one more sharpshooter extraordinaire tonight: Francisco Garcia continues to be a godsend, building off his playoff success by displaying more of the veteran savvy and dead-eye shooting that rapidly transformed him into a fan favorite last April and May. Tonight he chipped in 15 points during 22 minutes off the bench, connecting on five of his 10 3-point shots to bring his preseason average from beyond the arc to a scorching 57 percent.

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On the paring of Omer Asik and Dwight Howard) “I saw a lot of good stuff from them. They had 26 rebounds between them and 10 offensive rebounds. When you play the big lineup, you get extra possessions and that’s what we were trying to do with those guys. I think they'll (Omer Asik and Dwight Howard) continue to grow. I liked a lot of stuff I saw.”

(On team defense) “I thought that overall, we were bad defensively in the first quarter, pushing the first seven, eight or nine minutes. They were just much faster than we were. Everything they did was faster. We were just like stuck in mud to start off with. Patrick (Beverley), Omri (Casspi), and Francisco (Garcia) came in and gave us some really good energy and all of a sudden everybody else started picking it up. When you throw Chandler9parsons) in there...he had eight rebounds…so that starting group with Chandler, Dwight and Omer had 34 rebounds between them. They did a really nice job. We got our defense going and started playing a little bit better. Too many turnovers though.”

(On Chandler Parson's play at the four position) “I like that. We're going to look at a lot of different stuff. Omri (Casspi), Chandler (Parsons) and even “Brew” (Ronnie Brewer) playing that spot. We're going to look at a lot of that stuff.”

(On the Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley combination) “I think we can. That's going to be an interesting “twosome” as they start getting a little bit more comfortable. I like what I saw. Omer (Asik) hadn’t played. He played for the Turkish national team and they took some time off, came here and got hurt the first day of practice, so it’s been a long time since he's played really. I thought he started getting going. I thought Jeremy (Lin) didn't shoot the ball particularly well but did a lot of nice things. He broke people down, he had eight assist. I thought that between he and Patrick (Beverley), they had 13 assist and 4 turnovers. They really did a lot of good stuff out there.”

(On spacing) “It's different. Its going to be credited around the three perimeters playing with them to keep moving and initiating the offense. When you put Omri (Casspi) out there, or you put Chandler out there at the four spot or “D-Mo” (Donatas or Terence. Stuff just moves faster because those guys are moving. Moving and getting on the perimeter.”

(On Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin defense) “I thought they just really solid. Any mistakes that they do make are mistakes because they're trying really hard and getting after it. They stay in place. They use their hands, they're both diligent guys. Those guys have good energy out there and I like how they play off each other.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the chemistry of the first unit) “It was the first game. I thought it was okay. Its some things we need to work on like being able to talk to each other and rotate. It's something we have to get adjusted to. It's the first game and its a good test for us and I think we'll be better later on in the season than we are now.”

(On the rebounding) “It was okay. It was a lot of rebounds that we missed. We have to do a better job rebounding especially on the defensive end. With me and Omer Asik in the game, we have to do a good job of keeping the ball alive and getting it. Its the little things we have to work on and we will.”

(On the chemistry of the team) “Its getting a lot better. We have great chemistry off the court. On the court, we just have to get used to each others game and the way we play and that takes time.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On playing with a new lineup) “It’s pretty good. The first quarter we gave up too many points. The rest of the three quarters we did a pretty good job on the defensive end, so that was our first time really playing against another team with our lineup. We just have to get used to it.”

(On making adjustments for the last three quarters with the new lineup) “We were just trying to get it out the way. We're just trying to get a feel for each other. It was our first time, so it will work itself out.”

(On if he feels the team's chemistry is developing) “Yeah. We have a real close bond already. It's easy; the game is a lot easier for us. When you kind of know what the other person tendencies are, the likes to do on both ends of the floor, so the faster we can pick it up the better off we'll be at the beginning of the season and let it carry out throughout the season.”

OMRI CASSPI

(On the new lineup) “Yeah, obviously now that Omer Asik's back, it's just fun to play. The way our offense works is that the 1, 2, 3 and 4 are interchangeable and we keep moving the ball and guys our cutting and setting good screens for one another and good things happen.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the Rockets’ lineup with Howard and Asik) “I think it was a little adjustment for us, just getting use to some stuff with spacing, where guys need to go off of penetration. It’s never going to work right away. It’s not going to be easy right away when you make a change like that. We just have to keep sticking to it.”

(On James Harden getting wide open threes) “I think that’s going to be a product of our offense and moving. Both Dwight (Howard) and Omer (Asik) are threats inside the paint.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On playing against Dallas so close together in the pre-season and regular season) “You have that in the back of your mind, understanding that they are the second game of the season and you wanted to see how you match up, throw different lineups out there and throw different people at Dirk (Nowitzki), different pick-and-roll coverage. We tried going big tonight with Omer (Asik) and Dwight (Howard) and I think it was a good thing.”

(On the open looks that are going to be created by the Rockets’ inside presence) “We are going to get a lot of open looks. We have to understand where the help defense is going to be coming from. There are just little things that we will get better at doing.”

FRANCISCO GARCIA

(On the positives that can be taken from tonight’s game) “We got another win and I think the best thing for us is that we got “O” (Omer Asik) and Dwight (Howard) out there together for the first time and we’re getting everybody healthy; we are getting everybody playing.”

(On what the Rockets need to improve upon): “I think we need to keep working on our defense. I think defense is a big key for us. We’ve got to come out and jump on teams defensively.”

DALLAS MAVERICKS COACH RICK CARLISLE

(On the game) “We did some good things; we have to get better in some areas. This is the best team we’ve seen in the preseason by far. This is going to be one of the top teams in the league. I thought we did some good things and we adjusted to things they were doing. We took some of the threes away in the second half. We scrambled pretty well, but there are just some areas where we have to get better. We’ve got to get better with taking care of the ball, particularly in critical situations. We looked tired to me. Our energy wasn’t where it should have been, so we’ll address that and the season is going to come quickly and we have a lot of things to do in a short period of time.”

(On the Rockets) “I was looking at there third team out there and they looked like a real NBA team. This is a very, very deep team. (Dwight) Howard and (Omer) Asik will play well together if they choose to play that lineup and they probably will at times, but they are very, very good and have a lot of weapons, a lot of spacers, a lot of drivers, and so they are going to be tough to play.”

JOSE CALDERON

(On the his play in coming to Dallas) “Everyday, things are getting better with the team and I feel pretty comfortable out there. I’m trying to get everybody involved into my game and things are getting better everyday.”

(On the Rockets) “It’s a big difference when you’ve got a guy like Dwight (Howard) on your team and it looks like they continue to play the same way. He’s even a bigger threat than (Omer) Asik. They run up and down all the time and now they have a guy in the middle that’s even better. They are a very good team and they’ll be up there fighting at the top this year.”

MONTA ELLIS

(On how Dallas played) “We did decent, but we were slow at times. In the second half, we got it together and did some good things for the first time. We just have to get ready for the next game. We didn’t push the ball the way we should (in the first half) and we were a little out of whack, but I don’t think it’s a problem.”

(On the Rockets’ new look) “They are pretty good. They have a lot of shooters, some big bodies down there and Dwight looks like he’s focused and motivated. They are a pretty good team.”

NOTES

The Rockets recorded a 100-95 win over the Mavericks tonight, outscoring Dallas by a 50-37 margin over the second and third quarters.

Houston grabbed 54 rebounds tonight. In 2012-13, the Rockets had nine 50-plus rebounding games (Rockets record: 6-3).

The Rockets (13) and Mavericks (13) combined for 26 steals tonight. The most combined steals in a game for Houston last season was 29 (Thunder 16, Rockets 13) vs. Oklahoma City (12/29/12).

Houston finished 13-of-28 (.464) from beyond through tonight. The Rockets have actually made 10-plus 3-pointers in each of the last five regular season meetings (4/18/12-3/6/13) with the Mavericks.

The Mavericks registered 12 blocked shots and forced 23 Houston turnovers tonight. The opponent season high against the Rockets last season was 13 blocked shots by the Raptors at Toronto (12/16/12).

James Harden netted 19 points (6-9 FG, 4-5 3FG, 3-4 FT), coming up just two points shy of his fifth straight 21-point outing. Harden had scored exactly 21 points in each of his four prior preseason appearances.

Dwight Howard posted 15 points (6-12 FG, 3-8 FT), a team preseason-high 17 boards, three steals and one blocked shot tonight. Howard was actually one of just four players in the NBA to reach those totals in a game last season, notching 16 points, 18 rebounds, four blocks and three steals for the Lakers against the Rockets (4/17/13).

Francisco Garcia continued to have the hot hand from downtown tonight, going 5-of-10 (.500) from beyond the arc en route to 15 points and two blocks. Garcia is now 13-of-23 from 3-point range this preseason.

Jeremy Lin dished out a game-high eight assists tonight. Overall in 2012-13, the Rockets racked up a record of 18-7 when Lin reached at least eight assists in a game.

Omer Asik made his preseason debut by starting along with Dwight Howard in the Houston frontcourt. Asik finished with four points and nine rebounds.

Jose Calderon led the Mavericks with 14 points (6-10 FG) and three assists tonight. Calderon recorded the second triple-double of his career of 18 points (6-12 FG), 14 assists and 10 rebounds last season against Houston (12/16/12).

Samuel Dalembert chipped in with 13 points (5-9 FG), seven boards and three blocks tonight, while Dirk Nowitzki added 11 points (5-9 FG) and four blocks. The two combined for seven of the team’s 12 blocks.

Monta Ellis led a 27-assist night for the Mavericks with a team-high seven dimes.