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That's A Wrap

Rockets put finishing touches on impressive preseason with 92-73 trouncing of Grizzlies

HOUSTON - Instant analysis and observations from Houston’s 92-73 win over Memphis Friday night:

Only three things truly mattered in the wake of Friday’s preseason finale:

1.) First and foremost, James Harden will be OK. For a few tense minutes, Houston’s near perfect preseason appeared on the precipice of rapidly morphing into a nightmare when the Grizzlies’ Quincy Pondexter collided with Harden’s right knee near the midway point of the first quarter. The blow brought the All-Star guard to the ground where he momentarily stayed before gingerly raising himself up, knocking down his free throw to complete a four-point play and then limping straight into the locker room.

The diagnosis allowed for a massive sigh of relief, however: Harden sustained a right knee contusion, but the injury is not considered serious and all signs point to him being well and recovered in time for Houston’s regular season opener next Wednesday night against the Bobcats. Harden has been nothing short of brilliant this month, hinting at his potential for producing a season that could be even better than the breakout campaign he enjoyed a year ago. An ill-timed injury was pretty much the only thing that seemed capable of putting the brakes on such optimism. Thankfully, that worst-case scenario was avoided Friday night.

2.) More dominance. It would be hard to put together a realistic script that saw this Rockets team produce a more pitch perfect preseason than what has unfolded this month. Only the dissipation of a double-digit fourth quarter lead during scrub time in Houston’s preseason opener against New Orleans stands between the Rockets and a flawless exhibition record. But wins and losses during the preseason really don’t matter all that much. What’s truly relevant and impactful are the ways in which teams congeal and coalesce, and from that standpoint nearly every single thing Houston’s coaches hoped to see this month came together in a very positive way.

The Dwight Howard-James Harden duo has been downright dominant. Harden and Chandler Parsons have shown much-improved defensive efforts. The spacing and unselfishness of this team have been first rate. The Jeremy Lin-Patrick Beverley point guard combo – and simultaneous backcourt pairing – has been plenty potent and at times downright electric. Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia have been godsends with their shooting, savvy and energy off the bench. And after a slow start due in very large part to Omer Asik’s injury sustained on the opening weekend of camp, Houston’s supersized lineup featuring a Howard-Asik frontcourt offered some eye-opening proof during this San Antonio-Memphis back-to-back that it can inflict some serious damage as well.

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way now: All the usual preseason caveats apply (or: AUPCA, courtesy of ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh). But one night after shutting down the paint with their presence in San Antonio, Howard and Asik absolutely laid waste to any semblance of an interior attack the Grizzlies hoped to have with their All-Star duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. After the first quarter of play, Houston led 30-10 and had outscored Memphis by an 18-2 margin in the paint. The Grizzlies finished the period shooting 3-of-16 overall while committing five turnovers. By halftime, the picture was much the same with Memphis trailing by 16 after hitting just 19 percent of their shots from the field.

There’s never been any mystery about the Rockets’ offense being an elite unit – they were a top-6 outfit in that area last season and figured to only improve with another year of experience, seasoning and the addition of Howard. But Houston opened camp facing plenty of questions about its defensive potential and – though AUPCA – these last 24 hours have provided some pretty drool-worthy stuff for those who derive delight from the sight of a particularly striking and suffocating defense.

Will such a behemoth frontcourt be a one-size-fits-all solution to all comers? Probably not. But therein lies perhaps the greatest beauty of what we’ve seen from this Rockets team to date: They have displayed so much versatility – and effectiveness within that versatility – that they clearly possess the potential to be situationally superior to the vast majority of the league. Want to play big, small, fast or slow? Houston can do all of those things and it’s at least a decent bet that they can do them better than you, too.

3.) The preseason is over. Hallelujah. Let the real games begin. What did we learn this month? Plenty. But the NBA landscape often changes so quickly, much of this knowledge frequently gets rendered moot in a moment’s notice (anyone remember what they were doing the final Saturday night before last year’s regular season opener? I sure do).

But hey, maybe this preseason was different. Perhaps it’s already given us a significant clue into what the future holds. Care to name the NBA’s two best preseason teams based on record, point differential and my very own, top secret, super scientific criteria that amounts to something akin to a category I like to call 'most impressive?' That would be the 8-0 Chicago Bulls (+10.3) and the 6-1 Houston Rockets (+10.4). Feel free to start scouring your favorite travel sites for package deals to and from the Windy City in June.