Setting The Pace

MANILA - Instant analysis and observations from Houston’s wire-to-wire 116-96 preseason victory over the Pacers played Thursday night in Manila:

- The Rockets unveiled a different starting lineup from their preseason opener, giving Patrick Beverley an opportunity to open the game at the point guard position in place of Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones got the nod at power forward in place of Donatas Motiejunas. This is the time of year for experimentation and Head Coach Kevin McHale said beforehand that he’ll likely rotate the starters at the point guard and power forward positions throughout most, if not all, of the preseason.

- Pretty difficult to imagine a more perfect opening statement by Houston’s new look starting five. Houston’s defense was swarming, generating nine Pacers’ turnovers and limiting Indiana to 41 percent shooting in the first quarter. The Rockets began the game on a 12-0 run and extended their lead to as large as 15 before the Pacers trimmed their deficit to 7 by the end of the period. The sample size is woefully small and therefore needs to be taken with the largest serving of salt imaginable, but Houston’s starting unit, regardless of who’s manning the point guard and power forward positions, has been dominant through the team’s first two preseason contests.

- Speaking of MVP caliber performance, James Harden spoke yesterday about his desire to test himself against a Pacers team that had his number during their two matchups last season. Harden shot just 26 percent from the floor and averaged four turnovers per game in those contests. Indiana’s suffocating defense and the burgeoning Paul George were nothing short of brilliant in making Harden’s – and, it should be noted, the rest of the Rockets’ – life miserable last year. Houston’s All-Star shooting guard was eager to see how much he’d improved after a summer dedicated to taking his overall game to another level. The early returns sure looked promising. Harden scored 10 points in the opening period on 3-of-6 shooting. Oh, and zero turnovers.

- With Beverley starting tonight, it’s been fun to see J-Lin run the show with the second unit. That role obviously puts the ball in his hands more, allowing his considerable playmaking skills to shine even brighter. Those gifts were on display in the second quarter, especially in transition where he made some splendid outlet passes that resulted in layups and dunks (though good as those were, they still can’t touch the one-handed bounce pass he threaded through the legs of Dwight Howard – while on a dead run no less – during yesterday’s practice session, though). I’ve said it in this space before with regard to Houston’s starting point guard situation: there are merits to both players and their respective fits. Each brings something unique and tangible to the table. It will take time to see which direction ultimately works best for the team, which, you know, is the whole reason for this preseason experimentation in the first place. 

- To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Rockets’ defense isn’t anywhere close to as stout when Howard isn’t patrolling the paint – a fact that only serves to reinforce the importance of Omer Asik’s return to health.  Funny what the absence of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate means – and also a huge reason why the Rockets genuinely believe they can be a dominant defensive team when they possess the option of having one of those rim-protecting rebounding machines on the floor at all times.

- Backing up that point: Indiana’s first five possessions of the third quarter played out much like they did in the first quarter: zero points, two turnovers and two fast break layups for Houston as the Rockets’ lead ballooned to 11 once more. Again, it’s just two games so small sample size theater is in full effect, but the biggest preseason takeaway thus far is that Houston’s starting 5 – both versions – hasn’t produced a poor stint yet.

- It wasn't just the starters taking care of business today, either. Omri Casspi shone again in the fourth quarter and Donatas Motiejunas played well throughout. End result: an emphatic Rockets win and a heck of a way to kick-off this Asian two-step. See you again bright and early (or, to be more precise, exceedingly late) Sunday morning.