That's A Wrap

Rockets appear ready for the real thing after finishing preseason strong
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - The Rockets passed their preseason pop quiz with flying colors. Now it’s time for the true test.

Houston wrapped up its exhibition season Friday night with perhaps its strongest showing yet, crushing the overmatched Orlando Magic 108-92. The ball movement was out of this world (31 assists on 41 made baskets), the shots were falling and players up and down the roster delivered impressive performances.

Say what you will about the preseason or the level of competition, but emerging with a 5-2 record while attempting to incorporate so many new faces and educate so many rookies? Not too shabby. And while wins and losses in the preseason only amount to so much, a string of victories for a young team that came into training camp facing so many questions certainly beats the alternative.

So now what? This much we know: In five days (or four, by the time you’re probably reading this) the Rockets will be tipping off the regular season in Detroit against the Pistons. We’ve learned quite a bit about this club over the course of the past four weeks, but we’re about to learn a whole heck of a lot more. After all, nothing reveals a team’s true colors quite like the grind that is the NBA’s 82-game marathon of a regular season.

So with the countdown now officially on for Houston’s Halloween opener, here are a handful of observations and questions that figure to loom large in the days, weeks and months to come:

Jeremy Lin, as the great Marv Albert would say, is “showing signs”

Many will point to Lin’s Friday night performance (5-10 from the field, 3-4 from three) as a much-needed breakthrough from a shooting standpoint given that he came into the game hitting just 22 percent of his shots through the preseason. And from the perspective of end results, that’s undeniably true.

But in many ways the beginnings of this breakthrough, if you even want to call it that, could be seen during the third quarter of the previous game when Lin really began slicing and dicing his way through the opposing defense and getting to his desired sweet spots on the floor – even if the shots still weren’t falling for him.

Some nights the ball isn’t going to drop – that’s just basketball. And sometimes those stretches last several games. But if a player is able to consistently get the kind of shots and looks that he likes, sooner or later the ball is going to start going through the hoop again on a regular basis. So in some ways, Lin’s shooting performance Friday was about the law of averages titling back in his favor. He was able to get himself in position for good looks, whether it was a step-back jumper or spot-up J, and drain those shots with confidence. And of course the more he knocks those down, the more it will open up lanes for penetration opportunities; something that remains the strength of his scoring game.

Lastly, it’s also good to remember that amid all the hubbub over Lin’s shooting slump, he was still contributing as a distributor (6.2 assists per game) and ball-hawk (2.4 steals per game). Coaches talk all the time about the importance of being able to impact games when a player’s shot isn’t falling. Well, that’s exactly what Lin was doing and precisely the point’s John Hollinger made when he said this about Lin within his Houston Rockets season preview piece: “Lin simply does too many high-value things (drawing fouls, assisting at the rim, steals and rebounds) to not be an effective player.”

And let’s not forget this: Jeremy Lin has also been in charge of an offense that has really been humming this month. In fact, that brings us to our next point:

Just how good is this offense going to be?

The Rockets wrapped up the preseason as the proud owners of an offense that ranked in the league’s top-5 in terms of points per possession. To be frank, that sort of potent offensive efficiency comes as a bit of a surprise. With so many new faces and so much youth, we knew the Rockets would want to run at every opportunity but their half-court offense figured to experience plenty of growing pains in the early going as players developed familiarity with each other. Yet there they were Friday swinging the ball from side to side and picking the Magic’s defense apart with apparent ease.

Now look: No, Orlando is not going to be good this year. And yes, all the usual caveats apply when attempting to glean meaning from any sort of preseason statistic. But that’s what makes this such an intriguing question heading into the season. The Rockets may not have superstars known for lighting up the scoreboard (though a rejuvenated Kevin Martin can put up points with the best of them), but what they do have is a starting five filled with very complementary pieces and the makings of a second unit that seems to have rapidly developed some offensive punch and chemistry as well.

In fact … 

Kevin McHale may have found himself the makings of a reliable rotation

Perhaps the most impressive players during Houston’s final two preseason games: the bench trio of Carlos Delfino, Shaun Livingston and Greg Smith. All three were terrific in New Orleans and Orlando, and each made a strong case to not just be included on the Rockets’ opening night roster but also to receive playing time during the games themselves. Delfino has been a three-point making machine since the day he arrived at training camp, Smith has barely missed a shot (93.3 percent shooting in the preseason), and Livingston has shown the otherworldly vision that elicited Magic Johnson comparisons as a high school phenom.

Head Coach Kevin McHale has been open about the fact he’ll probably begin the season with a nine- or even 10-man rotation simply to ensure his team plays with the proper amount of pace. Playing time will be there for players who prove worthy. Delfino, Livingston and Smith put their best foot forward when McHale needed to find out whom he could trust. Perhaps we’ll see much more of them (along with Terrence Jones, who will rejoin the reserve unit when Patrick Patterson returns to full health) off the bench going forward.

Now about that defense …

This appears to be the area that most needs shoring up heading into the regular season. The Rockets’ D generated its fair share of turnovers during the preseason but by and large their defense has been below average, especially in transition.

On paper, the basis of a solid defensive core exists in the frontcourt with Omer Asik owning the paint and above average defenders Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons flanking him. Jeremy Lin and Kevin Martin aren’t going to be lockdown perimeter defenders, but they don’t really need to be. The most important thing going forward is for everyone to get on the same page with regard to positioning and rotations. We often think about familiarity in terms of how it affects offensive chemistry and cohesion, but the truth is it’s of no lesser importance on the defensive end.

As discussed in this space several times, the Rockets are bound to be most vulnerable defensively when Asik is off the floor since there’s no one else on the roster who can do what he can do. Then again, there are few players in the NBA period who can do what he does. Patterson will likely slide over to the back-up five spot when Asik is given a breather, and some combination of Terrence Jones, Greg Smith or Donatas Motiejunas can help as well. But each of those names is that of a very young player. The defensive focus of all five guys on the floor will have to intensify when Asik is on the bench.

Are they ready and able to do so? The time for pop quizzes is over. The real test awaits.