It is with great pleasure that I write this game recap–the first, of hopefully many, of the season following a Rockets win. As I mentioned in yesterday’s recap of the Spurs game, I wasn’t yet worried, but would be very worried if we dropped a game to the Wolves, who lost their last 4 games by an average of 26 points. Thankfully the Rockets took care of business, beating the Timberwolves by exactly that margin.
The game started out with both teams ice cold. The Rockets managed to get an early lead by going to the line frequently whereas the Timberwolves were continually throwing up rocks from all over the place, instead of pushing it to Darko and Kevin Love. The Rockets picked up the pace in the second quarter, with Ish Smith being a great facilitator in the first start of his NBA career. In particular, Smith’s lightning speed on fastbreaks got us a number of easy points in transition.
By half-time, the Rockets had opened up a 60-37 lead and were well on their way to blowing out the Wolves. Solid play in the third quarter ensured that the Timberwolves did not make a comeback and we were able to allow our bench to close out the game without too much trouble.
There were a lot of positives today, which can be expected when you blow out a team by 26 points. All of these positives have to be taken with a massive lump of salt, though, given that the victory did come against a struggling Minnesota Timberwolves team. That said, a win is a win is a win, and it is especially appreciated when it is the first of the season.
Ish Smith is the first name to mention. A few weeks ago, Ish Smith was on the verge of getting cut from the roster or being sent down to the Rio Grande Vipers of the NBA D-League. Instead, Morey elected to keep Smith on the roster, probably because of Lowry’s injury issues last season and also because he played some really good minutes during the preseason. As Brooks went down yesterday, the decision came into fruition as Lowry was also out with recurring back spasms. Ish, in his first start as an NBA athlete, demonstrated why the management had put faith in him by putting in an electric performance.
I daresay that Ish Smith is a few knots faster than Aaron Brooks. And not only is he faster, he has got superior ball handling skills. Smith managed to initiate fast breaks even after the Timberwolves had scored. As someone pointed out on the Red94 chatroom, Ish Smith seemed to move with extra pace whereas everyone else appeared to be caught in a slow motion replay. His stat line does not look impressive–7 points, 6 assists and 4 boards in 42 minutes of action–but his +/- of +24 demonstrates how well he ran the offense. Not only that, but Smith would easily have a few more assists if Jordan Hill had knocked down fastbreak layups after getting fouled.
Yao Ming looked as comfortable as he has this season on offense, putting in a good performance against the legitimate(ly overpaid) Darko Milicic and getting to the line with regularity. His defensive rebounding was still short of average but hopefully that will improve as his conditioning improves. We only needed Yao for about 16 minutes today, which is good in the long run, I suppose.
Kevin Martin and Luis Scola were as consistent as ever with getting their points, finishing with 21 and 24 points respectively. Both also played under 30 minutes given that we were dominating the Timberwolves. In particular, I was extremely happy with one particular play involving Kevin Martin and Yao Ming. Martin passed the ball into Yao in the low post. Yao, having dominated Milicic, drew a double team from Martin’s defender. Yao drew the secondary defender in and then kicked it back out to Kevin Martin who knocked down a smooth three pointer. That play epitomizes how our current roster full of good perimeter shooters (Brooks, Martin, Budinger, Lee) is built for an offense involving a dominant big man. Here’s hoping we have more of that in the next few weeks.
Jordan Hill was also very impressive today. One particular play sticks in mind, where he had a ferocious block in the first quarter that led to a simple fast break score. Jordan Hill definitely gives us an athletic defensive presence in the paint, something which has been missing from our frontcourt the last couple of seasons.
It is difficult to look for negatives in such a rout, but there were still a few there. For one, we allowed 19 offensive rebounds. That is about double of how much we should be targeting. Our offense was clicking today and the Timberwolves were pitifully bad at executing their offense, which is why this did not have as much of an effect. But we can’t expect NBA teams to pick up 19 offensive boards and still end up losing by over 20 points on a regular basis. We need to clean up the glass on the defensive end. Scola did a good job; Yao not so much.
Chase Budinger continued to struggle from the field, his only jump shot coming late into garbage time. He missed another couple of wide open shots from beyond the arc that we were accustomed to him knocking down. We didn’t need those shots today, but we will need them on other days (such as yesterday, when we could have consolidated our lead in the fourth quarter against the Spurs). He will need to keep practicing that shot and hope he eventually gets into rhythm.
All in all, it feels really good to get that first victory under our collective belt. If we had not been able to knock off the Wolves, that would have pushed us into red alert. As it happens, we took care of business and demonstrated to our fans and the rest of the NBA that we are a good team that just got hit by an unfortunate schedule to begin the season. There are still opportunities to improve, of course, particularly on defense, but we’ve made good strides. I’m confident of this team being led well by Ish Smith during Brooks’ and Lowry’s absence and if he keeps up his level of performance, he could be making a serious push for the starting spot, even when everyone is healthy (even if it is just a pipe dream!).
We have a relatively easy week coming up, playing Washington and Indiana during the week on Wednesday and Friday respectively. The Wizards have started their season 1-4, disappointing for them after acquiring John Wall in the draft. The Pacers, a traditionally tough rival for the Rockets (too many times has Granger beaten us from beyond the arc), have had a marginally better start and are currently placed at 2-3. After these weekday matchups, we take on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The Knicks have looked pretty good this season and are currently placed 3-3 but look like they are playing with good chemistry.
AB is going to be out for at least 2 weeks and Lowry is still day-to-day so we have a good shot at using the same rhythm generated by Ish Smith as teams begin scouting him now. Here’s hoping that the Rockets can build on this momentum. Every winning streak begins with the first victory.