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Total Team Effort

March 31, 2013 1:16 am EDT

Rockets ride reconfigured starting lineup to huge 98-81 win over Clippers

HOUSTON - Tired of sitting through three straight days of talk questioning their toughness and ability to handle physical play, the Rockets responded in the only manner that ever seems to get positive results in such situations. They threw the first punch. They stood their ground. And never once did they back down.

By the end of the evening the Clippers, a team that had bullied Houston in two previous meetings this season, laid a beaten and bloody mess, so thorough was the drubbing the Rockets delivered. It was a beat down that began with a series of body blows in the first quarter that saw Houston rack up 22 points in the paint. From there a flurry of shots from the perimeter in the second quarter staggered the Clips just a little more. And when it came time to unleash the knockout blow in the second half, the Rockets scored a submission with the same sort of suffocating, lockdown defense that had led to their own demise in losses to Indiana and Memphis earlier in the week.

Such was the formula for success for a Rockets team forced to play without James Harden (ankle) while featuring a retooled starting lineup that included Greg Smith at the power forward position. After watching his club get pushed around and occasionally abused by the Pacers’ and Grizzlies’ powerful frontlines, Houston head coach Kevin McHale enlisted Smith’s brawn in an attempt to put an end to the cycle of violence Saturday night. It took the 22-year-old just one possession to prove that faith worthwhile. The Rockets went to Smith on their very first trip down the court and the second-year forward promptly backed down Blake Griffin before scoring over the top of the 6-10, 250-pound All-Star with a nifty jump hook.

With that, the tone had been set. The Rockets were not going to wait for the Clippers to dictate the terms of engagement – they were going to take the fight to them instead. No holds barred. No excuses. No surrender. Nothing but a total team commitment to a plan of attack centered upon being the aggressor right from the opening tip.

“Get physical with him because he's a physical guy,” said Smith when asked about his approach toward his matchup with Griffin. “He likes to try to bully ball you. I knew he wasn't going to do that because I've been in the weight room a lot and I know I have strength so I was going to bring it to him.”

To be sure, Smith brought it and so, too, did the rest of his Rockets teammates. Along with Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons, Smith helped Houston’s frontline corral 29 of the club’s 48 rebounds. Francisco Garcia, the forgotten man on the Rockets’ bench after collecting DNP-CDs in four of the team’s last five games, provided a second quarter spark that generated enough electricity to light up the entire Houston downtown skyline by pouring in 13 points in the period. Jeremy Lin never flinched while going toe-to-toe with Chris Paul, overcoming a high turnover night by chipping in 15 points and helping to frustrate CP3 while getting him into foul trouble during the decisive third quarter.

Even James Anderson, starting in place of the injured Harden, drew post-game praise despite producing a quiet night from a statistical standpoint. The Rockets have been understandably wary of pairing Smith and Asik together for extended stretches because both players are most effective around the basket; a reality that could easily lead to a clogged lane and less than ideal floor spacing thereby limiting the success rate of Houston’s potent pick-and-roll game. But McHale made a point of mentioning how Anderson’s movement, along with that of his teammates’, proved key in allowing the Rockets to thrive with a brand new starting five on the floor.

“The ball really moved,” McHale said. “James Anderson did a great job of cutting and spacing. You can play two bigs if you have a lot of guys that really move, and they did. The ball moved and bodies moved so it didn’t look quite as jammed up there as it can sometimes when the ball gets sticky.”

McHale was noncommittal when asked what the starting lineup will look like going forward. Harden will obviously return to his regular position when healthy (he’s currently being listed as day-to-day with a sore right foot) but it remains to be seen whether or not Smith will stick as the club’s starting power forward. McHale’s answer, however, did offer hints that Smith may be in line for an encore performance in a starting role.

“A lot will depend on matchups but Greg’s been really good for us lately,” said McHale. “He’s bigger, longer and he’s a grizzled veteran of, what, five games last year? He’s got more experience … he knows what we’re doing, he’s more comfortable.”

The future of Houston’s starting five is a question for another day, however. Whether the answer is Smith or Motiejunas matters far less than the Rockets being able to repeatedly summon the same sort of effort they put forth Saturday night. The ball movement was back. So, too, was the defense. After being bullied in back-to-back games, Houston’s players stood up and showed they’d had enough. The Rockets responded forcefully and physically. Most importantly, they responded as a team.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

Our guys played well. ‘Cisco came in and gave us a huge (spark). Greg started off the game scoring in the low post. We decided to go big and a little more bulky just because we’ve been getting beat up a little bit the other way around. I thought everybody played with a lot of effort. We were more physical after really getting out-physicalled the last couple games, and the ball really moved tonight. It was good to see that.

(overcoming the space issues with Smith and Asik on floor together): The ball really moved. James Anderson did a great job of cutting and spacing. You can play two bigs if you have a lot of guys that really move, and they did. The ball moved and bodies moved so it didn’t look quite as jammed up there as it can sometimes when the ball gets sticky.

(comfortable going forward with that lineup?) A lot will depend on matchups but Greg’s been really good for us lately. He’s bigger, longer and he’s a grizzled veteran of, what, five games last year? He’s got more experience. I hate to say it, but he knows what we’re doing, he’s more comfortable and I look at him as a guy that’s a veteran which shows you (how young this team is).

(On the game plan) “Everybody was in tune. We try to do a couple of things. We tried to keep the ball in front of us a lot more and fighting over picks and trying to just keep that pressure on the ball handler and keep pressure and keep sagging and just trying to keep the paint tight. We were able to do that. That was big for us to just keep them out of the paint. They (Clippers) made some shots early. I think they made five of their first seven 3's if I'm not mistaken. Then, after that, they were two for their next fifteen or sixteen. That helped out. We got fouled and got to the line twenty-seven times. For us, that is good. I thought a big tale was our starting front line had 29 rebounds between Chandler (Parsons), Greg (Smith) and Omer (Asik).

(On playing back-to-back) “I told our guys we played last night and they (Clippers) played last night. They (Clippers) came off a tough loss to San Antonio. Like I said, it was their fourth game in five nights. We had to come out with energy. We got to run, run, run and we did. We kept pushing it. My major concern was that when you play these guys, Chris Paul is just going to dominate the game. For awhile he was getting steals left and right and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is going to be bad,' but we got that straightened out.”

JEREMY LIN

Everybody chipped in. You look across the board and there was no one who really did anything spectacular but it was just everybody doing their role and that’s when you need when you lose our best player, our star player – everyone else has to rally and pitch in a little bit here and a little bit there.

(on the starting lineup) Greg was huge tonight. He’s a beast and he came in right away and went at Blake and got a couple buckets to set the tone. He played really, really well and he was a big why we were able to protect the paint.

(On the key to the win) “The key was we played hard. They (Clippers) were on the back end of four games in five nights so we just tried to play harder than them and we had more energy and I think that's where the difference was.”

GREG SMITH

(On his defensive plan against Blake Griffin) “Get physical. Get physical with him because he's a physical guy. He likes to try to bully ball you. I knew he wasn't going to do that because I've been in the weight room a lot and I know I have strength so I was going to bring it to him.”

(On the team effort and controlling the game) “Those guys were tired. They (Clippers) had played four games in five nights. They had a little bit of energy. Our whole emphasis was to push the ball and run and try to wear them down by the fourth quarter. Their second unit came in the third quarter and started trying to break the lead down but our guys found a way to stick with it and found a way to beat the zone and stuck to it.”

(on first play being a post-up for him against Griffin): I was very surprised that that play was coming toward me. I thought we’d run a pick-and-roll or something. When he said it’s coming to me, my first reaction was I’ve got to score. Once the play went and I got the ball, I saw the opening and I knew, ‘Oh man, this is my bucket. I’m going to get it.’

When  you first start you’re going to be nervous. I was nervous for a bit. But as time went on, my adrenaline went down and it’s just basketball. I went out there and played, got my confidence up, got my first bucket. J-Lin and everyone was talking to me saying keep doing what you’re doing.

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the win) “It was huge. It was a total team effort. When you've got a guy that goes down as good as James (Harden) and how much impact he has on our team, it gives chances for other guys to step up. Francisco (Garcia) played unbelievable. James Anderson, we didn't miss a beat with him in the starting lineup. Patrick Beverly was great again. Everybody just chipped in and played their role and played so unselfish and I think offensively, it is probably one of the best games of the year, just moving the ball, our spacing, taking good shots and we knew we had to do that when missing him (James Harden).”

(On the Rockets getting out to a good start tonight) “We wanted to come out tonight and we wanted to make sure we got off to a good start. The last time we played them I think they had 46 points or something in the first quarter. So, we really wanted to emphasize defense and keeping Chris Paul out of the lane and limiting their alley-hoops and I thought we did a great job of focusing on the scouting report.”

FRANCISCO GARCIA

(On his impact on the game by scoring off the bench) “I was trying to go out there and try to help the team. James (Harden) wasn't playing today so we needed some scoring. Our defense did it for us tonight. We played great defensively and we were moving the ball offensively and we got the win.”

(On the Rockets coming together tonight without James Harden) “When your best player is out everybody has to step up and give a little more and that's what we did tonight. We stayed together and we played as a team and got the win as a team and that's what we've got to keep doing.”

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS COACH VINNY DEL NEGRO

(On what happened in the third quarter) “They played harder than we did. We were terrible, our effort was terrible, our attitude was terrible, our urgency was terrible, very disappointed. I didn’t see the fight in us and we need guys to step up. I know it was the 4th game in 5 nights, but it doesn’t matter because we have plenty of depth, no excuses, I don’t believe in that and they out played us. Give Houston credit but we were soft, sloppy, our urgency was poor, our defense was poor, our transition defense was poor, our post defense was poor, our pick and roll defense was poor. I could go on and on. It was just a poor effort and we have to show way more urgency, more toughness and I’m very disappointed in that.”

(On what he told his team) “They know exactly how I feel. They didn’t say much. They are not going to say much right now. Why don’t you ask them on what I said because that’s not what we’re about. I don’t care what happened on this road trip, I don’t care that we had tough losses, I don’t care about anything. We have plenty of depth and talent on this roster to play much harder than what we did tonight. We have too much whining going on. There is a lack of urgency and it is disappointing and I’m not going to allow that. We have to get our legs back under us and we have a home stand coming up here are no easy games in this league. If you don’t come with energy and focus and mental toughness and concentration, things are going to happen like they did tonight. We’re fighting for a playoff spot and pretty much our overall effort was poor.”

CHRIS PAUL

(On what Coach Del Negro said after the game) “That was terrible. I think our effort was poor, our execution was poor, our defense was poor and this is not the way you finish off a road trip in which we played pretty well on. This is not the way you get to 50 wins. If I knew why (we played this way), I’d tell you. I know t his is on us. Coaches coach, players play. Coach can’t go out there and put the ball in the basket for you, he can’t defend for you and stuff like that. Starting with me, we all have to do our part. Our energy was there early. It was a 5-point game at halftime and then we looked up and we were down 20. We have to control our emotions, we have to play better and we have to leave them (refs) alone.

(On his All-Star game experience in Houston) “Houston was amazing for the All-Star Weekend. My very first All-Star Weekend was here in 2006. It was pretty special to be back here as an All-Star and to win the MVP.”

BLAKE GRIFFIN

(On his calf injury) “It’s getting better. It’s a slow process and may take 5 more days maybe.”

(On what Coach Del Negro said to the team after the game) “He was pretty upset and pretty vocal about it. He said we have to do a better job and we have to want it and take ownership and step up to the plate. We played terrible and we didn’t give ourselves a chance. I don’t think the technicals are why we lost. I think after awhile when things are pretty obvious, that it’s hard to let those things go. It’s tough not to show frustration when you’re in the flow of the game and your competitive juices are flowing. It’s tough to smile and just walk away sometimes. We need to do a better job but I don’t know if that’s the reason we lost the game tonight.”

JAMAL CRAWFORD

(On the game) “They (Rockets) were playing without their leading scorer and probably their best player and other guys stepped up. Houston played hard and you have to tip your hat to them. They came to play even without James (Harden) and they didn’t make any excuses and they came out and played hard and played together. They had a lot of success. The game definitely got away from us (third quarter) and at that point we were just trying to cut it down by the end of the quarter but we just couldn’t get there.”

NOTES

The Rockets registered another sold out crowd of 18,303 for tonight’s game. Overall, the Rockets have 18 sellouts in 2012-13, which includes a sellout in eight of the last 11 outings at Toyota Center.

Houston outscored the Clippers by a 30-13 count in the third quarter en route to a 98-81 win tonight, snapping a five-game (1/4/12-2/13/13) losing streak to the Clippers. Tonight’s game was the near opposite of the first meeting between these two teams this season. The Rockets were outscored by 32-18 in the third stanza vs. Los Angeles (1/15/13), which propelled the Clippers to a 117-109 victory.

The Rockets limited the Clippers to just 31 second-half points tonight, which included the 13-point third quarter. It marked Houston’s opponent season low for points in a half (prev. low: 33 on 3/20/13 vs. Utah) and tied for the lowest third-quarter point total (other: 13 on 11/7/12 vs. Denver).

Houston took both the battle of the boards (+10, 48-38) and in the paint (+22, 48-26) by a double-digit margin tonight. Overall, it marked the 11th time this season the Rockets have recorded a double-figure rebounding differential over their opponent.

Houston tonight used just its seventh different starting lineup of the season, with James Anderson and Greg Smith joining the starting five.

Chandler Parsons registered 15 points (6-15 FG, 2-5 3FG), nine rebounds and a team-high four assists tonight. It was the seventh time this season Parsons has led (or tied) the Rockets in assists.

Jeremy Lin finished with 15 points (4-10 FG, 6-8 FT) and three assists tonight. Lin also chipped in with 12 points (5-11 FG) and 10 assists in the last home outing vs. the Clippers (1/15/13).

Omer Asik posted 13 points (6-9 FG), 12 boards and two blocks tonight. Asik picked up his 30th double-double of the season.

Francisco Garcia came off the bench with 15 points (5-10 FG, 3-7 3FG) tonight, which marked his best scoring output since joining the Rockets.

Greg Smith made the first start of his NBA career tonight. He had nine points (3-7 FG, 3-4 FT) and eight boards tonight. Smith helped the Rockets starting five grab 34 of Houston’s 48 rebounds tonight.

James Anderson also got his first start with the Rockets tonight (fifth career), replacing and injured James Harden (sore right foot). Anderson recorded seven points (3-4 FT), five rebounds and two steals.

Chris Paul topped the Clippers with 19 points (7-15 FG, 2-3 3FG, 3-3 FT), seven assists, five rebounds and three steals tonight. It was the eighth time this season Paul has recorded at least 15 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals in a game, which stands as the fifth most such outings in the NBA this season.

Blake Griffin was held to just 12 points (5-11 FG, 2-2 FT) and three rebounds tonight. Griffin led the Clippers with 20 points (6-10 FG, 8-11 FT), 11 rebounds, five assists and four steals against the Rockets at Los Angeles (2/13/13), making him one of only four Clippers (Elton Brand, Baron Davis and Ron Harper) to record those numbers in a single game since 1994.

Ryan Hollins led the Clippers with eight rebounds and made a season-high-tying three blocked shots. He also had three blocks against the Rockets at Los Angeles (2/13/13).