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Thursday January 20, 2011 2:55 PM

Closing Time


Rockets keeping their cool when game heats up

West Medlin
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - A team’s ability to pull out close victories in the fourth quarter is as much about poise as it is about skill. It doesn’t matter how well you handle the ball if you can’t handle the pressure. As the old saying goes “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Right now, the Rockets aren’t going anywhere.

With their 104-89 victory over the Knicks Wednesday night, the Rockets have now won three games in a row. Wins aside, it’s also the third straight contest in which has Houston held a lead entering the fourth quarter. The notion sounds simple: lead after three quarters, and greatly increase your chance of winning the game. But in a wacky season where lucky breaks have been replaced by ankle sprains it seems like nothing has come easy for this Rockets team. For whatever reason, holding onto fourth quarter leads has been harder than one would expect.

The Rockets have bucked that trend during this three-game winning streak and are showing that fourth quarter leads are actually a good thing. “We haven’t dug ourselves in huge holes,” Battier said while describing the team’s recent play. “We’re just playing solid basketball and that’s all we have to do.”

Maybe it’s the new year, maybe it’s improved team health, or maybe the team is still riding the high from the epic Bell Biv Devoe halftime performance on MLK Day. Whatever the reason, in the past three games, Houston is beginning to correct the fourth quarter issues that have plagued them for most of the season.

Beyond the uptick in the win column, these games have shown that Houston not only can close games well, but also that the team is not limited to winning in just one way. “We’re just playing good basketball right now,” Chuck Hayes said after the win over New York. “In Atlanta, we shot the ball lights out. In Milwaukee, it was an ugly game, physical. In this game, we had a solid performance as a team. Defensively we held them to under 90 points. Offensively, we did some great things; hit open shots, created turnovers and tried to get fastbreak points.”

It’s no coincidence that the Rockets are now 3-1 since Chuck Hayes returned to the lineup after recovering from an ankle sprain. He kept seven-footer Andrew Bogut in check against the Bucks and played excellent defense on Amar’e Stoudemire against the Knicks. However, Hayes’ contributions on defense are not limited to how well he can pester the opponent’s best post player: the entire team benefits when Hayes can play his man well enough to not require a double team.

“When Chuck’s in the game you don’t have to worry about helping him out on defense at all,” Battier said. “You can stay home on shooters. You get in trouble on defense when you start getting into rotations and your defense has to shift.”

“A great low post defender affords you the ability to stay home on shooters and not shift the defense as much.”

But it’s not just the defense that has improved over the last three games. Offensively, the Rockets are doing a better job of executing late in the game and scoring points that either stop an opposing team’s run or begin a run of their own. It hasn’t been just one player but rather a collective effort with someone different showing up on different nights to give the team a key offensive boost. Against Atlanta, Aaron Brooks showed flashes of returning to form and poured in 11 points in the fourth. Against Milwaukee, Kevin Martin scored 11 of his team-high 36 points in the final frame. And against New York it was a group effort as Chase Budinger chipped in 7 points, Kevin Martin scored 8 and Aaron Brooks tossed in 5 to help stifle a New York run early in the final quarter that had cut Houston’s lead to 7. Bottom line: the team is grabbing leads early and holding onto them in the fourth quarter.

“We controlled the whole game and we closed it the right way,” Luis Scola said. “I think it was a really good game against a really good team. We beat them last time. We were expecting them to really want to come at us and we hung in there and played a good game.”

Houston has shown a recent ability to keep a cool head in the fourth quarter when the game’s pressure heats up. Unfortunately for their opponents it looks like the kitchen’s closed.

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