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The X-Factor

Motiejunas' career night showcases ability to be difference maker off Rockets' bench

HOUSTON - So often when an NBA player’s improvement is discussed it is done so from the perspective of summers spent tirelessly working in the gym and weight room in an effort to continue the upward trajectory of said player’s career. To be sure, such sessions of perspiration are a prerequisite to professional success. But what of the steps made in-season? What of those players who make mini leaps from month to month until one looks back in astonishment at all the progress they’ve made between October and March?

Not every individual reaps the rewards of offseason work right away. And the truth of the matter is that, for those truly serious about improving and refining their game, the labor and pursuit of greatness never actually ends. But it can be especially fascinating to follow a young player’s progression in-season, much in the same way a parent applies tiny pencil marks upon a wall to monitor their child’s growth.

From that perspective, it’s been a thoroughly engrossing subplot of the Rockets’ season to keep track of the strides made by their pair of second-year power forwards, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. While the former hit the equivalent of a growth spurt in the early going and then yet another during the month of January, Motiejunas’ chart reveals a much slower ascent. He was largely a non-factor in November and still saw little but spot duty and garbage time minutes through the holidays. When he did play, he often appeared rushed, scattered and out of sorts.

But sometime around the middle of January, with Houston’s other back-up big men, Omer Asik and Greg Smith, ailing and unavailable, opportunity arose that pressed D-Mo into service and prompted the first signs of a player in the early stages of bloom. The production was modest, but his contributions – on both ends of the floor – were hard to miss: a loose ball created with his length here, a charge taken there, and scattered in between was an assortment of baby hooks, corner 3s, endless effort and a burning desire to keep getting better. By the end of January, he was defending Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter and notching the first double-double of his young career – an achievement that represented a mini milestone, and the most noteworthy mark to date on his metaphorical wall.

Since that time there have been growing pains, of course – the typical ups and downs of the roller coaster ride that seduces and claims virtually every young player in the NBA. Asik’s return has reshuffled the Rockets’ deck as well. But most telling is that the 23-year-old has continued to earn minutes – on a title contender, no less – because the fact of the matter is that, on any given night, he possesses the ability to be a difference maker.

All of which leads up to the evening of March 20, 2014 and D-Mo’s career-high scoring binge against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The 20 points and 9-of-11 shooting look lovely on paper, but they pale in comparison to the aesthetic value that accompanied each and every one of those scoring plays. There was the deft footwork in the low post, strong finishes with either hand, and even a nothing-but-net triple from the corner. Additionally, he raced up and down the floor, used his length on defense, and smartly moved the ball on a night when Houston’s passing fluctuated somewhere between pristine and sublime for large portions of the evening.  

This is what D-Mo can do. This is what he is capable of. And this is the kind of effort that would have seemed utterly unfathomable four months ago.

“D-Mo can be an X-factor for sure on any given night because he can do so many different things and he can score in so many different ways,” said Jeremy Lin after the game. “Today we saw it all: saw him hit 3s, some pick-and-pop midrange 2-pointers, and hooks and layups and everything. He’s been working really, really hard and I’m happy for him. He was all over the place and the best thing is he just let it come to him.”

Not every night will be like this, of course. More growing pains undoubtedly lie ahead on the horizon. But efforts such as these are meaningful not just in what they signify today, but more so in what they could potentially represent down the line. When the postseason arrives and opponents seek out every possible vulnerability in an effort to exploit them over and over again, Houston’s power forward position promises to come under the microscope. Teams will load up on James Harden and Dwight Howard defensively while forcing others to beat them, and on offense they are going to attack Jones and Motiejunas early and often. The Rockets will need both to stand their ground and show their growth. That doesn’t necessarily mean career-high scoring nights, but it will require consistent, solid production. Motiejunas understands exactly what that means and what will be asked of him.

“Sometimes there are (other) players who provide the points and provide the baskets so I have to do the tough work,” he said Thursday night. “Go on defense, try to defend and stop the opponents.

“Not every day you can play like this, but I’m trying to play smart, trying to help our team to win and I think that’s the most important.”

He gets it. For now, the little things that impact winning and losing are far more likely to be the places where Motiejunas makes his mark. But that which seems small when viewed from a distance can take on massive proportions when witnessed up close – just like the steady, incremental growth D-Mo has displayed during a season that has seen him transform from non-factor to X-factor.