The Rockets have their first official winning streak of the season, after knocking off a New York Knicks team that looked good in patches 104-96. This is the Rockets third win in the last four games and a nice way to end an East Coast road trip where they went 2-1. Rick Adelman and the Red Nation would have been hoping for a perfect 3-0 trip featuring many of the weaker teams in the Eastern Conference, but after a 0-5 start, I think the Rockets fan would take more wins than losses.
I didn’t take notes today, which is good because it will limit the length of my recap, which has been growing steadily over the course of this season. Instead, I will revert back to my original format, where I recap the game in summary, to begin with, and then going into the positives and negatives and a general game summary.
Houston was out of the gates early in this one, being led by Lowry, who got his first start of the season over Ish Smith. The shooting was slightly below par at 39 percent, but the Rockets made up for it by controlling the defensive glass well. Amar’e Stoudemire was off to a terrific start, making something like six of his first seven shot attempts and generally beasting his way through Brad Miller, Luis Scola and whoever else we threw at him.
At the half, Houston had a slim six-point lead over the Knicks doing very well on defense as well as offense. The Rockets had just four turnovers in the first half and also limited the Knicks to just five offensive boards. Of course, the Knicks aren’t the best of rebounding teams (readers are asked to refer to Kevin Love’s recent 31/31 night) but it was good to see us active on the glass.
The second half got off to a more tenuous start for the Rockets, as Houston started turning the ball over with regularity. Personally, I also thought the Knicks ended up getting a lot of calls going their way that disrupted the Rockets’ momentum. The calls did even out in the fourth quarter, though. In one particular foul call, Lowry was thrown in the inbound pass at around the half-court line and turned right into a Knicks guard (I think it was Felton). Lowry was charged with an offensive foul, which was totally ridiculous since he apparently should have had eyes at the back of his head to avoid the Knicks guard.
The visitors bench eventually got into rhythm and the third quarter quickly turned into a barrage of dunks as Ish Smith hooked up with Courtney Lee as well as Jordan Hill. New York also had a few transition dunks that were added to the highlight reel. The fourth quarter began with the Rockets holding on to an 8-point lead, disappointing given that they had grabbed a rather significant double-digit lead earlier in the quarter. Five straight free throws to end the quarter, including one off a Kyle Lowry technical for disagreeing with a call, got the Knicks within touching distance going into the fourth.
Playing consistently in the fourth quarter has been the Achilles heel for the Rockets this season, so it was with bated breath that Rockets fans, including myself, watched the fourth quarter unfold. Luckily for us, tonight New York did us a massive favor by completely imploding. The Knicks started throwing up stupid shots from all over the floor to begin the quarter, as well as blowing lay-ups at the rim. The refs did let the players play a bit, which probably annoyed Stoudemire more than anyone else.
At the half-way mark of the fourth quarter, the Knicks had only two points in the quarter compared to a bunch by the Rockets. Houston stretched the lead to 19 points before relaxing a bit and almost letting the Knicks make it back. However, the Knicks still couldn’t hit their open looks and the Rockets managed to hold on to a well-deserved victory.
Kevin Martin—Martin was off to a good start today and ended up putting in 28 points in the game. He had the touch from three-point range and also got to the line a lot of times. He played well through the first three quarters and as usual took a backseat in the fourth. If we are to win against the tougher teams, we need to figure out how to integrate Martin into the offense in the fourth, since he is the primary scoring option.
Chuck Hayes—I seldom give Hayes a mention in this column, but I thought he did an awesome job on Stoudemire after Scola was unable to stop him in the first half. In the first half, Stoudemire used his strength to move defenders out of his way and finish at the rim. Scola was solid in the low-block and immoveable, even by Stoudemire. Amar’e ended up taking and missing jump shots or being unable to finish at the rim with a big body, and good help defense. Stopping Amar’e from getting his shot was as key a defensive strategy as any.
Courtney Lee—Courtney was great off the bench today. He was hitting his shot within the offense and even had a couple of pretty posters, one in particular off a beautiful Ish Smith dish for an alley-oop. Lee also had two makes from long distance. If he can put in these performances consistently, he’ll be a wonderful counterfoil when Martin is resting.
Luis Scola—The guy who calls himself “El Luifa” according to his Twitter account had another consistent game, getting 24 points off 9-for-18 shooting. Scola played well in the post; so well, in fact, that the Knicks began doubling him pretty early. He was impressive passing out of the double-team and had 5 assists on the night.
Kyle Lowry—I thought Lowry played really well today, despite his ugly stat line (he went 1-for-6 for 7 points and had 5 turnovers to go with his 6 assists). I thought he got the offense going very well in the beginning of the game and marshaled the team very well. His active hands on defense also limited the effectiveness of the Knicks’ guards.
There were actually not that many negatives today, even for someone like myself, who likes to scapegoat players. As a team we only had two players with a negative plus/minus rating—Brad Miller and Shane Battier, who had minus-5 and minus-1 respectively.
The one blip in the Rockets’ play today was turnovers in the second half. After protecting the ball very well in the first half to give away the ball only twice, the Rockets had ten giveaways in the second half, including six in the third quarter. Luckily for us, the Knicks were unable to take advantage of these turnovers—something that our other opponents this year have managed to capitalize on.
Free throw shooting is also something that the Rockets should continue to work on. They started off the season very hot from the line, but have cooled off significantly since. Today, the Rockets missed ten free throws to go 72 percent from the line. Lowry was the main culprit, going 5-for-8 from the line, but even the usually dependable Kevin Martin and Luis Scola had four misses between them.
The Rockets went a long way in fixing their issues in this game and got a well-deserved victory at the Madison Square Garden. Although the victory was against the struggling Knicks team, watching the second half one actually felt confident that the Rockets would hold on, unlike in previous games where Houston has had the lead going down the stretch.
The key areas I had identified in previous recaps were as follows:
Limit turnovers—The Rockets had 14 tonight, still higher than where they want to be, but they played a very good first half. A few of the turnovers in the second –half can be credited to poor officiating for offensive foul calls, but the Rockets still need to make sure they take care of the basketball for the entirety of the game.
Limit offensive rebounding—Houston only allowed the Knicks nine offensive boards today and many of those were in the fourth quarter during garbage time. Overall, the task of keeping the Knicks off the glass was well executed. As I mentioned earlier, the Knicks aren’t an elite rebounding team, so this isn’t necessarily the end of this issue.
Play good team defense—I thought the Rockets played good team defense today. Granted, the Knicks missed a lot of open jumpers, but in general I feel like we did a good job. Scola, who was getting abused in the post by Stoudemire early, was given some reprieve by Adelman who decided to put the athletic Jordan Hill and the stocky Chuck Hayes on Amar’e as the game progressed. It was a good defensive adjustment on the part of the coaching team.
It appears that Adelman has grown a bit more comfortable with his rotation, although it is missing Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks. Chase Budinger was also unavailable today, going by many comments. As these guys start to return to the line-up, it’ll be important for the coaching staff to rotate the players efficiently. I feel like that was one of the bigger issues with having such a deep team.
All in all, this was a good win for the Rockets, who can head back to Houston knowing they are just three games away from .500. The Rockets do have a challenging week up ahead, though, so they can’t let up the intensity. Next up is Chicago at home on Tuesday followed by a road game in Oklahama City in the second night of the back-to-back. The Rockets then head to Canada to take on the Raptors in a Friday night match-up.
I’m going to go ahead and predict that we will be 5-7 at the end of the week, with victories against Chicago and Toronto, and a big loss to the Thunder. The optimist in me, though, is hoping that at this time next week the Rockets will have pulled back to .500 and will begin building a winning record.