When The Going Gets Tough ...

It's pace-and-space versus grit-and-grind as the Rockets travel to Memphis
by Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - There’s typically very little left in the way of secrets at this point in the NBA season. The vast majority of each club’s cards are on the table and whatever mystery once existed about a particular team’s identity has long since dissipated amid the daily drama that unfolds upon the hard court. Sure, there might be a special inbounds play here or there that some coach is hoping to save for just the right moment during the postseason, but by and large the book profiling every team and player has already been written.

In Houston, that tome begins with an introduction on the ups and downs of youth before delving into a detailed analysis on pace, the proficiency of its spread pick-and-roll attack, diligence on the defensive glass, and a high turnover rate that can occasionally wreak havoc upon the team’s leaky transition D. Thanks to the uber young nature of its roster and a pair of midseason trades, however, there are actually a few chapters discussing this Rockets team that still require some fleshing out prior to publication.

One such section centers around Houston’s ability to handle the physical play teams like Memphis (the Rockets’ next opponent) and Indiana specialize in, and the sort of style that more often rears its head in the playoffs when the pace of play begins to slow. Omer Asik can clearly hold his own with anyone down low, but NBA neophytes such as Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and Thomas Robinson still have something to prove in that regard. Each has his own counter to the bangers and brutes that populate the paint - D-Mo has his speed and ability to space the floor, Smith the size to bump right back, and T-Rob his high-level athleticism – but all are still in search of the kind of consistency that can be called on and counted upon for daily production. And Wednesday night’s defeat at the hands of the Pacers highlighted the fact Houston’s perimeter players have some lessons to learn regarding how they handle rough treatment as well.

It is perhaps, then, a blessing in disguise that Houston’s own version of hell week has descended upon the club at this particular point in the season. If the Rockets require answers to any questions involving toughness or physicality, they most certainly will have access to some compelling data on those subjects by the end of this stretch. They’re a respectable 1-1 at the midway point, having expertly survived the Spurs only to succumb to the Pacers three days later. Now the Rockets make their way to Memphis’ Grind House where the Grizzlies promise to bring just as much beef to the battle, if not more, than did Indiana Wednesday night. After all, “grit and grind” is not just a saying around those parts – it’s a way of life.

“That’s why those teams are successful,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale. “They make you do everything harder. There’s no free running. They put their hands on you, they’re grabbing you, they’re holding you. We spent most of (Wednesday) night looking at the referee looking for a bailout and it didn’t happen.”

The Grizzlies are a different defensive animal than are the Pacers, but they are no less physical and nearly as effective. Memphis ranks No. 2 in the NBA in defensive efficiency (Indiana is No. 1. The Spurs, by the way, are No. 2 and Saturday night’s opponent, the Clippers, are No. 8 – hell week, indeed) and also stands second overall in limiting opponents to the fewest number of field goal attempts from both the restricted area and the corners – the two highest-value shot locations in the game. The Grizzlies rank third overall in opponent turnover percentage. Their half-court defense is fourth best in the league on a points per possession basis according to Synergy Sports. Allow them to set up their defense, and the Grizzlies will grind you to a bloody pulp. All of which is why the Rockets wrapped up Thursday’s practice preaching the importance of imposing their preferred pace of play right from the opening tip – something that can only happen by executing offensively and by employing a tough, physical defense of their own.

“I think it all starts on defense,” said Chandler Parsons. “I think we’re a much better team when we get stops early and then our offense is fueled from our defense. I think if we set the tone defensively and we’re out and running, the game comes a lot easier for us.

“We have to play our style. It’s all about what we’re doing and sometimes we beat ourselves. We really don’t care what Memphis is doing. We don’t care what Indiana is doing. We have a game plan and a style of play that we have to instill and do that from the tip every game.”

Indeed, a simple glance at the box scores from Houston’s two previous meetings with the Grizzlies tells you all you need to know about the clash of style and pace that is destined to take place Friday night in Memphis. Back in early November, the Grizzlies won a 93-85 affair that was right in their grit-and-grind wheelhouse. One month later, Houston turned the tables and smoked Memphis 121-96 with an up-tempo flair that made resistance futile.

Of course, those two contests also took place prior to each team undergoing its midseason makeover. The Grizzlies shook the NBA when they dealt Rudy Gay to Toronto, but the early returns have been extremely positive with Memphis posting an 18-8 record since its new players arrived along with a post-trade offensive rating (103.7) that is nearly four points better per 100 possessions than the mark it had posted before the deal went down. And the Grizzlies remain downright beastly on the offensive glass where they continue to lead the league in offensive rebound rate.

The challenge for Houston, then, figures to be no less daunting than the tests they confronted earlier this week. After a dismal first quarter doomed them against Indiana, the Rockets realize how imperative it will be to do away with their recent tendency to start slowly and instead match the Grizzlies’ effort, energy and physicality right from the opening tip – an objective, of course, they’d be well served to attain the rest of the year given the fact Houston is 23-10 this season when heading to the second quarter with a lead while just 15-21 when playing from behind.

“It’s a matter of imposing our will,” James Harden says. “We can’t get into a slower paced game because that’s what they like to do. As long as we can get off to a good start early, get some stops and make some shots, we’ll be all right.”