While it is never wise to take too much away from a single game—especially the first game of the season—the Houston Rockets’ win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night gave fans an initial glimpse into possible rotations and tendencies that may be seen as the season progresses.
While the 18-point victory should be comforting to the Rockets (at least after both teams are able to shake off the disheartening injury to Julius Randle in his first NBA game), the game offered possible insight as to what fans can expect from the team this season. Because it is a win after all, we will start off with …
James Harden can still draw fouls
Many Rockets fans maintain a fear deep within that eventually James Harden will not find success on his constant quest to reach the free-throw line. If the season-opener is any indication, Harden will continue to get whistles again this season.
Thanks to his masterful ball-maneuvering, body control, and the occasion flail, Harden reached the free-throw line 16 times—knocking down all but one of his attempts. While the advantage of matching up often against the smaller Lakers guards may partly explain some of Harden’s success drawing fouls, it was impossible to ignore that Harden had no problem getting into the paint against the marshmallow-soft Lakers interior D (only Ed Davis is excused today).
When Harden’s drives didn’t result in free throws, they did an excellent job of contributing to …
Trevor Ariza getting a ton of good looks from three
With much of the preseason chatter focusing around comparisons between Chandler Parsons and Ariza, it is safe to say that after one game (whoaa) the Rockets have a lead in the “I told you so” battle with the Dallas Mavericks.
While Parsons struggled in his Mavericks debut, Ariza started off hot in Houston, knocking down five three-pointers while looking more than comfortable in the Rockets system. While it is highly unlikely that Ariza maintains the 62.5 percent three-point shooting that he displayed last night, Ariza found plenty of open looks, and he didn’t let them go to waste.
It’s already understood that Ariza won’t have an undeniable facilitator like John Wall on the court with him this season, but the chemistry between him and Harden was evident on a couple of occasions. For at least one night, the signing of ”Trevor A-3-za” will be cheered.
Perhaps the greatest praise of the night however should go to …
Terrence Jones and his tenacity on the boards
After Kevin McHale made it known during preseason that the starting power forward spot was up for grabs, many people wondered how Terrence Jones would respond.
I believe that Jones’ first-half double-double and game-high 13 rebounds spoke clearly enough for all in attendance to hear (unless Donatas Motiejunas happened to be using earmuffs on bench.)
Jones looked like the most-energized player on the glass all night, and his six offensive rebounds attest to that energy. While he still looked a bit out of place from time-to-time on defense, Jones demonstrated the athleticism and strength that earned him the starting job last year. If Jones is able to replicate that effort—as well as play against the Lakers every night—his starting job will be safe well into the future.
Honorable mentions: Jason Terry banking in a three, Kostas Papanikolaou’s oddly-effective slow first step, Dwight’s two free-throw swishes following the double-technical incident with Kobe Bryant, Patrick Beverley’s on-ball defense.
A frightening lack of bench production—especially at center
Despite the fact that the Rockets won by 18 points, it is impossible to ignore the lack of depth on the bench. When Dwight Howard found himself in foul trouble, the rockets turned to Tarik Black to log minutes at center. While Black looked impressive on the boards in preseason, he pulled down just two rebounds (to go along with two points) in 24 minutes of action.
Motiejunas also found himself plugged in at center for small stretches, and despite pulling down five rebounds in the game he also struggled to match up and provide a comforting presence on either side of the ball.
On a night where the bench struggled (outside of Terry the reserves shot just 3/14), the Rockets were fortunate to face a team whose bench struggled just as much to get the ball into the basket. Cohesion and production from the second unit will need to improve greatly as the season wears along if the Rockets hope to match up against some of the deeper teams in the Western Conference.
Honorable mentions: Beverley barely grazing rim on two separate shots is close, Troy Daniels 0-5 night.
Dwight’s free-throw shooting
Ahh yes…the oft-mentioned struggle with free throws for Dwight Howard.
After jumping back above 50% from the line last season for the first time since 2010-11, Howard once again struggled to knock down his free-throws against the Lakers. While some of the misses were uglier than others, the most obvious part of it all was that they all missed differently. In fact, the only two free throws which looked to be shot in any sort of rhythmic similarity were the two shots that Dwight attempted following his altercation with Kobe. While Dwight swished both of those attempts, he still finished the night at a less-than-stellar 7/16 from the line.
It is easy to say that this isn’t a problem, and it is something that the Rockets will continue to work on with Dwight throughout the year, but it still needs to be discussed. As the game progressed and it became obvious that Dwight would be able to have his way inside with Jordan Hill and Ed Davis, it seemed as though the Lakers had abandoned all intentions of properly defending Dwight, and were content to wait for his move towards the basket—where they would proceed to pummel him.
It is futile to try and guess what strategy the Lakers may have employed had the game been closer, but you have to imagine, on nights where Dwight finds himself in foul trouble or unable to get into a rhythm, teams will have no problem wasting foul-after-foul and forcing Dwight to earn his points from the line.
Nothing different than before…right? Not so fast. As the lack of depth at the center position was just broached, let me see a share of hands: how many Rockets fans feel comfortable with Tarik Black playing extensive minutes at center, and as the anchor of the defense down the stretch? Anybody who extended their arms skyward: Tarik would like to have a word with you, as you have now been selected President of the Tarik Black fan club.
Honestly, though. Dwight’s free throws looked tonight as disjointed as they did at any point last season, and if nothing else, it needs to be recognized at ugly and a possible problem moving forward.
As was mentioned earlier, however, it is foolish to dwell too heavily on “the bad” and “the ugly” from an 18-point victory, so the negatives will end here. For at least one night, Harden is the NBA’s leading scorer, “Trevor A-3-za” looks like an upgrade over Chandler Parsons, and Kostas Popanikolaou’s facial hair has now officially been titled the Andrew Luck beard.
Here’s to 81 more games of worthwhile entertainment and facial hair.