Five Things We've Learned Through Five Games
Sizing up the Rockets following their first five games of the preseason
HOUSTON - Preseason basketball is inherently a ‘box of chocolates’ exercise. With all the experimentation and acclimation that takes place this time of year, you never truly know what you’re going to get on a night-to-night basis. Predicting the outcome of sporting events is a fool’s errand the vast majority of the time anyway, but in preseason not even Miss Cleo has a clue regarding what’s likely to go down.
Now go ahead and multiply that erratic effect at least tenfold for a team like the Houston Rockets. With the club’s host of new names and fresh faces dotting the roster, the amount of variance seen in the early going is likely to be even more extreme that usual. You like unpredictable roller coaster rides? Right now this team should be right up your alley.
But with all that having been said, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind during these days of up and down preseason performances is that very little of it truly matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. How can it when on any given night you’ll see starters matched up against scrubs, coaches tinkering with lineups nonstop, and players still getting a feel for their surroundings? Right now sample sizes are so small they might as well be considered microscopic – not that that realization prevents people from overreacting, of course. But rest assured many of the topics people are currently fussing and fretting over will be non-stories a month from now when the real games have been going on for awhile.
Still, whether you’re a fan, journalist or member of an NBA team’s basketball operations department, it’s impossible to resist sifting through whatever data you can get your hands on, even if the only thing available is a meager five-game sample of exhibition hoops. Part of being human lies in our need to fill in the blank spaces of what we don’t know by making our best guesses based on what we do. So without further adieu, here, in no particular order, are five things we can say with varying degrees of certainty based on the Rockets’ first five preseason games, the latest of which came in the form of an impressive 109-102 win over the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night at Toyota Center:
1.) Omer Asik may very well prove to be the Rockets’ most indispensible player
That statement has already been made several times in this space so there’s no need to belabor it much more. By now it should be evident to all that the 26-year-old center simply brings something to the table that no other player on the roster can duplicate. His size, smarts, length and surprising quickness make him a monster defensively and on the boards. If you’re a basketball junkie, Asik might be your favorite player on the team because you could center a master’s class around the subtle little things he does to help his team on every possession. Watch the way he defends the pick-and-roll out on the perimeter but still manages to beat everyone back to the rim so he can corral the rebound. Look closely at his deft passes to cutting teammates. Asik is, quite simply, essential to this team’s success.
Speaking of which, the Turkish big man flirted with foul trouble for the first time this preseason on Wednesday, eventually fouling out after just 20 minutes of action (not that that stopped him from racking up 9 points, 11 rebounds and a block, of course). The Rockets are going to need him on the floor for at least 30-35 minutes per game, so his ability to avoid accruing copious amounts of fouls is going to be crucial. Don’t be surprised to see opponents do everything they can to attack him early, knowing that the best way to make the Rockets vulnerable defensively will be to send him to the bench with foul trouble.
2.) Kevin Martin (aka Captain Efficiency) is back
Forget about last year. Kevin Martin clearly has. Right from day one of camp, K-Mart has made it clear that last season’s injury plagued campaign doesn’t even register in his rearview mirror. He returned with a great attitude, a clean bill of health and all the old formidable weapons – and even a handful of new ones – that make him such a devastatingly efficient offensive player. To wit: on multiple occasions against Memphis, Martin posted up his man and showed off an ability to score with his back to the basket. Is that something we’ll see often from K-Mart? Doubtful. But it’s a testament to the dedication he has to his craft that he continues to add to his already considerable offensive arsenal.
Martin finished Wednesday’s contest with 22 points on 8-11 shooting, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. And while he obviously won’t keep shooting 61 percent from the field as he’s done through his first four preseason games, all signs point to him returning to the form he flashed with the Rockets two years ago when he ranked among the top-five players at his position.
Also worth noting: the Rockets coaches have continued to trumpet Martin’s much improved effort on the defensive end to date. Again, it’s one thing to do that during a handful of preseason games, quite another to carry it through the 82-game grind that is the NBA’s regular season. But it’s an encouraging sign all the same.
3.) Patrick Patterson’s offseason improvement in the low-post was no joke
Even back in August it seemed clear that Patterson had made significant strides with his post game. But of course only so much can be gleaned from watching a player dominate low-post drills against a bunch of rookies. So far the early returns seem to indicate the third-year pro really has improved with his back to the basket. Patterson looked smooth knocking down a pair of jump hooks Wednesday night en route to recording a very impressive stat line composed of 17 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. As always, the typical preseason caveats apply. But seeing Patterson rise to the occasion against a Memphis club boasting one of the best frontlines in the game would seem to bode well.
And no mention of the Kentucky product can be complete without discussing his strong work on the defensive end. Patterson is an excellent team defender and especially solid when defending pick-and-rolls, where he ranked in the 77th percentile, allowing opponents to score just .677 points per possession in such situations according to Synergy Sports. And though Patterson struggled as a post defender last season, he produced some superb moments against Zach Randolph Wednesday, including one memorable possession in which he stuffed Randolph’s shot, triggering a fast break that ultimately led to a K-Mart triple.
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that the Rockets’ starting frontline figures to form the defensive strength of this team in 2012-13. With Asik manning the middle while being flanked by a pair of plus defenders in Patterson and Chandler Parsons, Houston’s frontcourt possesses the potential to be very stingy on the defensive end.
4.) Chandler Parsons is the dreamiest dreamboat to ever don a Rockets uniform.
Kidding, kidding. Just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention. Besides, any tween girl would no doubt breathlessly inform you that it doesn't take five minutes, much less five games, to determine the veracity of that statement.
(Rapidly) Moving forward to the real No. 4:
4.) Jeremy Lin is getting his teammates good shots
After sitting out Monday night’s game against Dallas, Lin looked refreshed and rejuvenated against Memphis, piling up 12 assists during an evening when that number could have easily exceeded 15 for all the wide-open looks he was generating. No, the 24-year-old point guard’s playmaking skills aren’t producing big points for himself just yet, but he’s been very consistent (with Sunday’s clunker against San Antonio serving as the lone exception) in terms of getting his teammates involved and getting them the ball in good positions to score.
And that makes sense, too. By his own admission, Lin isn’t yet operating at peak physical capacity following offseason knee surgery. His burst and explosiveness are not all the way back yet. It stands to reason the lack thereof would adversely affect his scoring more than anything, especially since so much of his own personal point production tends to come from beating his man off the dribble on those fearless forays to the hoop that became such a staple of his game during his rise to stardom. But he’s had no such issues weaving through defenses, drawing defenders and kicking to open teammates. So long as that continues, the Rockets will happily and patiently wait for his burst, and subsequent scoring punch, to return.
A postscript to the point about the Rockets’ patience: It was interesting to hear both Kevin McHale and Chandler Parsons mention that they have recently taken the time to encourage and implore Lin to put aside any pressure, fear or doubt he may harbor and simply play with unbridled aggression and confidence. McHale said he had a heart-to-heart with Lin the other day during which he conveyed the message to play fast and with an attacking mentality.
Parsons, meanwhile, actually took the young point guard aside during the first quarter of Wednesday’s game to reinforce the message that Lin has the total faith of his teammates. “It’s just our job to stay in his ear, stay positive to him,” said Parsons after the game. “I talked to him during the first timeout: ‘Jeremy, stop forcing it, stop stressing – just play basketball. You’ve been doing this your whole life. There’s no pressure. No one cares. You’re not in New York. Just play ball. We’re here for you. Make the easy play and good things will happen.’
“In the second half he really slowed down. He distributed well. He looks up the floor and gets us easy buckets a lot. That's the way he needs to play. It's not about points. It's not about anything like that. It's just how he can lead our team on the offensive end and it's about us winning and the way he played tonight helped us win.”
5.) The Rockets’ rotation is coming into focus, but the picture isn’t quite clear yet
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Kevin McHale mentioned that he felt very comfortable with the sort of production he could expect to receive from his top-six guys but after that it was a bit of a crapshoot. The sixth man in that equation was presumably Carlos Delfino, and he certainly looked the part against Memphis, connecting on three of his five attempts from downtown while scoring 14 points to go along with four rebounds and three assists. Toney Douglas, meanwhile, seems to have a stranglehold on the backup point guard position, and he looked good Wednesday as well, scoring 13 points off the bench.
After that, however, answers for the rest of the rotation spots aren’t so easy to come by. Given the Rockets’ oft-stated desire to play with pace for the full 48 minutes, a nine-to-ten man rotation seems a certainty – a point McHale acknowledged following Wednesday’s game. That means players must emerge from the talented but unproven quagmire currently consisting of names like Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Donatas Motiejunas, Marcus Morris and Royce White.
Care to guess what the common thread is among that group? Inexperience. And you know what inexperienced players tend to be like night-to-night? That’s right: A box of chocolates. Ready or not, McHale and his staff are going to have to dive in and discover more answers.
NOTES AND QUOTES
We’re not where we need to be, of course, but I see signs of it. I just hope that we can get to the point where we’re getting proper spacing, proper movement, proper body movement and ball movement 90 percent of the time. That would be a huge increase and that’s what we need to do.
(Is Kevin as indispensible on offense as Omer is on defense?)
We need everybody. We need Kevin’s ability to score the ball and stretch the defense, and Kevin’s been really good defensively for us; he had another good night tonight.
(Feel like you have the makings of a reliable 7-8 man rotation?)
For how we’re going to play and the pace we’re going to play at, I think we’re going to have to get more than seven, otherwise those poor guys will be dead by Christmas. We’re going to have to get eight, nine, ten guys that can play – that’s going to be a bit of a challenge because we have so many young guys and they just ebb and flow up and down, up and down, up and down.
Dependability in the NBA is one of the best things you can do. Dependability means you’re ready to show up everyday. Secondly, that you’re going to play at a certain level. I’m not talking you’re going to score 20 points a game – I’m just talking about playing at a certain level that really comes with experience. I can’t say that enough. I sound like a broken record but it’s the truth. Young guys are like this. They’re just not dependable. It’s not that they’re not trying or not good kids, they’re inexperience just causes so many ups and downs. So getting nine and ten guys is going to be an adventure. Nine or ten guys might turn into all 13 one night. You’ve got to find guys that can play.
(on Jeremy Lin)
He played well. I think Jeremy pressed a little bit. As much as he tells you guys he’s 100 percent healthy, he’s not 100 percent there yet. We had a long talk the other day and I told him to, ‘Go play. Play fast. Get up and down the floor. Attack. Be aggressive. If you get too aggressive, believe me, I’ll tell you. Just go.’
He was better today. I said another thing: Don’t worry about who you’re passing it to. He was wondering, ‘Can we get Kevin shots?’ The way our offense is set up, the shots are going to flow. Kevin will get his shots. I told Jeremy to just hit the open man; just drive and hit the first open guy you see and let him make the next play. When we get bad offensively, everybody dribbles the ball once or twice and is looking for something specific. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just move and cut and pass and just try to create some space.
Tonight was great effort starting from the point guard down to the 12th man on the bench. We came in here and focused, realizing what we had to do. Coach made a point of getting everybody to play off each other instead of the other night in the third quarter when we went one-on-one and not working as a side.
(On the team's progress in play) “Yes, we talked about this. We had (taken) a step backwards (with San Antonio) and today, we played against a playoff team in the conference. We approached this game trying to work hard. We tried to get the first shots going and I think we did. After halftime we took a gamble in the 3rd quarter because we kind of had a light start in the quarter. We did a great job. I think as a team we played great. We shared the ball and everybody made a contribution and especially, we played a great defense.”
(On the team defense) “Well we have a lot of young legs and we have opportunities to work on the rotation by playing different teams. In the NBA it's tough to start playing once alone so you need to know the rotation. You need to know where you're sending your men to and make the rotations in the way the coach wants. We want to win games and continue to get better and better.”
(On what the Rockets did well) “I think today was a good team effort in terms of running and spreading out and playing fast and free flowing.”
(On the Rockets slow start in the 1st quarter) “I think that's one of those things where we need to come out with a little more energy, especially me. It starts with me and pushing the ball and being aggressive early on. We didn't do a great job of that but I'm glad we recovered and tried to make it closer of a game.”
(about his conversation with Coach McHale from a few days ago):
Yeah, it helped me a lot. Coach is a great person and so he was very honest with me. He just told me, ‘Be yourself. Go out, have fun, play basketball. We don’t want to put limitations on you.’ But in terms of being aggressive and giving me the confidence I needed it was great.
(on Kevin Martin)
He had it going, but it’s also my job to foster and facilitate that process, so we’ve been talking. He’s an incredible scorer. Sometimes you just have to give him the ball and get out of his way and other times you have to get him open and get him some quick, easy looks.
(On Jeremy Lin's effectiveness in the second half of the game)
It’s just our job to stay in his ear, stay positive to him. I talked to him during the first timeout, ‘Jeremy, stop forcing it, stop stressing – just play basketball. You’ve been doing this your whole life. There’s no pressure. No one cares. You’re not in New York. Just play ball. We’re here for you. Make the easy play and good things will happen.’
In the second half he really slowed down. He distributed well. He looks up the floor and gets us easy buckets a lot. That's the way he needs to play. It's not about points. It's not about anything like that. It's just how he can lead our team on the offensive end and it's about us winning and the way he played tonight helped us win.
(on Kevin Martin)
He’s playing at a very high level right now and I feel like we need that as our veteran leader who can really score the ball. We count on him on some possessions to get buckets and that’s what he’s been doing. He’s been a great teammate, he’s worked very hard and it’s showing just how well he’s playing.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES COACH LIONEL HOLLINS
(On his teams play) “I thought our first unit, for the eight minutes or so they were out there did a nice job. Then we substituted and got behind. The flood gates opened and we didn’t play well after that. We shot only 38 percent from the field and that’s ridiculous. Mike Conley has been a real positive for us all preseason. It was nice to see Selby get out there. He did well offensively but not as well on the defensive end. Our big guys have taken the preseason off; we’ll keep working on that. I’m just worried about my team. I don’t have any thoughts on the Rockets.”
(On the team’s play) “It’s still early and we’re trying to feel things out and everybody has to step up as we’re in the learning process. In the preseason there has been no continuity. It’s not going to be all right from the beginning but it’s a process. We need to work on our rotations and figure out who are going to be our guys off the bench.”
(On the team’s play) “We are trying to find chemistry from both our first and second groups. Hopefully it will happen soon. It’s even both offensively and defensively but we have to get better defensively first and the offense will take care of its self.”
(On his play) “It was cool. I’m trying to get a feel of everybody on the team and be ready for the start of the season. We will be ready and that’s our goal.”
(On the Rockets) “It’s a much different team than last season. They have to keep working along the way and they should be a team that other teams have to watch out for.”
Houston shot a preseason-best .506 (41-81 FG) from the field and limited Memphis to .375 (33-88 FG) shooting in taking a 109-102 win tonight.
The Rockets, who assisted on 16 of their 19 field goals in the first half alone, finished with a preseason-high 29 dimes tonight. Overall, Houston has dished out at least 23 assists in each of their five preseason outings.
Houston outscored the Grizzlies by a 22-5 count off the break and cashed in 23 points off 17 Memphis turnovers.
Kevin Martin notched another game-high 22 points (8-11 FG, 4-5 3FG) tonight, giving him back-to-back 20-point outings. He also netted a game-high 23 points (8-15 FG, 3-6 3FG) at Dallas (10/15/12). Through his four preseason games played, Martin is now 25-of-41 (.610) from the field.
Patrick Patterson has now reached double-digit scoring in each of his four starts this preseason, including his 17 points (7-12 FG), six boards and one block tonight.
Omer Asik scored nine points (3-6 FG) and pulled down another 11 boards tonight, giving him 10-plus rebounding totals in four straight games. Over his first two seasons with Chicago, Asik recorded nine games with 10 or more boards, but none came in consecutive outings.
Jeremy Lin had seven points (3-9 FG), 12 assists and four steals tonight. In regular season action, Lin had a career-high 14 assists and a career-best five steals in a 104-97 victory last season vs. Dallas (2/19/12).
Chandler Parsons registered 10 points (4-11 FG), five assists and four thefts. Parsons (4) and Lin (4) totaled eight of Houston’s preseason-high 12 steals tonight.
Carlos Delfino (14) and Toney Douglas (13) shot a combined 8-of-14 (.571) from the floor for 27 points tonight, leading the Houston bench to a 44-point night.
Terrence Jones recorded nine points (4-6 FG), five rebounds and a team-high two blocks tonight. Jones became the first Rockets player this preseason to record a multi-block game.
Mike Conley, who came into this contest averaging a team-high 18.0 points per game this preseason, finished with a team-high 18 points (7-10 FG, 2-2 FT) and three steals tonight.
Rudy Gay picked up 13 points (4-16 FG) and seven rebounds tonight. Gay averaged a team-best 18.3 points in four starts for the Grizzlies last season against the Rockets.
Zach Randolph finished a point shy of a double-double, racking up nine points (3-6 FG) and 10 boards tonight. Randolph entered tonight’s outing with one double-double this preseason.
Center Marc Gasol led the Grizzlies in assists with seven tonight. His career high is 10 assists at the L.A. Clippers (3/4/09).
Josh Selby went a team-best 3-of-5 from downtown en route to 11 points tonight, leading the Memphis reserves to a 50-point bench total.