Usually, not much can be deduced from a wire-to-wire blowout in the NBA in mid-November, especially one involving a prospective title contender and a tank-tastic bottom feeder. But the Houston Rockets have every reason to be encouraged by their 109-85 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.
And not just because the margin of victory was so impressive and the defensive effort that created that chasm was, in some ways, uncharacteristic for this club. Of greater import was the eye-opening play of Terrence Jones and what it might mean for the rest of the Rockets roster and Omer Asik in particular.
In just the fourth start of his young career, the second-year forward out of Kentucky led all scorers with 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting. He also added nine rebounds, two blocks and an assist in just 27 minutes. In fact, he had surpassed his previous career high of 14 points—set this past Saturday against the Denver Nuggets—well before halftime.
But the numbers, while impressive, only tell a smidgen of Jones' story. He did exactly what Kevin McHale needs his players not named James Harden, Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin to do: contribute to the cause without the ball in his hands. He hustled up the floor with the Rockets' guards on the break, cut to the cup in the half court, battled on the boards for second-chance points and even stretched the C's defense with a three-pointer from the wing.
That doesn't even mention the solid work he did going toe-to-toe with Brandon Bass and challenging Boston's shots on the defensive end.
In essence, Jones was about as pitch perfect as a stretch 4 as the Rockets could have asked for on this night. No constraints. No complaints. No excuses. Just a 21-year-old squeezing the most out of his minutes at the expense of a terrible team.
It was nothing fancy, as Jones told the media after the game (h/t Clutch Fans):
Fittingly enough, he exited the game for good with 6:48 left in the fourth quarter. His replacement? Omer Asik, whose starting spot was usurped by Jones nearly a week ago. As Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle noted, the Rockets have been racing out to quick starts since the switch was made:
The embattled big man tallied four points and four rebounds in seven minutes of garbage time.
For Asik, though, even those modest contributions marked a significant departure from his recent performances. Which isn't saying much, since he didn't play in Houston's previous two games. As it happens, he hadn't set foot on the hardwood since the Rockets' last loss, to the Philadelphia 76ers in overtime on November 13.
And for good reason, too. According to NBA.com, the Rockets have scored just 94.3 points per 100 possessions with Asik on the floor this season, as opposed to 112.3 points per 100 possessions without him. The former mark would rank 27th in the league, while the latter would check in ahead of the Miami Heat's world-leading scoring efficiency.
The disparity between those two numbers may be jarring, but the fact that there's such a gap, without much compensation of note on the defensive end, shouldn't be.
The now-ill-fated frontcourt pairing of Asik and Howard coming into the season was borne more of necessity than of efficacy. The Rockets weren't quite able to sift out a starting-caliber power forward between Jones and Donatas Motiejunas during the preseason, so they stuck with Asik, who would, in theory, make it impossible for Houston's opponents to score at the rim.
And, given his lingering discontent over the presumed decline in his playing time upon Howard's arrival, it made sense to satiate the displaced (and disgruntled) big man, if only for a short while.
It didn't take long for Houston to realize just how poorly equipped Asik was to handle playing next to Howard. Like D12, Asik lives in the paint on both ends of the floor. He doesn't possess a reliable, floor-spacing jumper and lacks the quickness and athleticism to chase smaller, more athletic forwards away from the hoop.
A stretch of four losses in six games was enough to convince McHale to sit Asik and start Jones in his place. A new round of pouting and trade demands only encouraged the Rockets coach to reduce Asik's role even further, to the point where he's now lucky to leave the bench at all.
With Jones' breakout performance fresh in their minds, the Rockets' urgency to offload Asik should dwindle as well. They don't need to parlay Asik's contract into a long-term solution at power forward because they might have just stumbled upon one. Their situation at center behind Howard remains a bit dicey, especially with Greg Smith sidelined by a knee sprain, but general manager Daryl Morey could bring back another big in any deal including Asik.
And what's the point of paying a guy more than $8 million to mop up spare minutes at center when he's not too busy moping around the locker room?
Indeed, the Rockets would appear to hold all of the cards with regard to Asik at the moment. He's an expensive luxury but a luxury nonetheless—one who could step in as a starter should Howard succumb to an injury.
The list of suitors for him is likely a long one and will only grow longer as the season progresses and more teams find themselves in need of a defensive-minded big man.
If anything, it would behoove the Rockets to take their time, survey the market and let other squads drive up the bidding. Come December 15, teams will be able to include their summer free-agent signings in trades.
Surely, those very teams are well-aware of what Asik can do when afforded a steady spot as a starting center in a non-twin towers arrangement. The titanic Turk was a double-double machine for the Rockets last season (his first as a full-time starter), when he finished third in the NBA in rebounding.
Jones won't be challenging for rebounding crowns anytime soon, but the Rockets don't need him to. That's D12's job. What they need from Jones, rather, is exactly what he brought to the table on Tuesday—energy, athleticism, awareness, a willingness to work off the ball—and plenty of it.
He provided enough to fill in the blanks for the Rockets, to solidify their rotation and ensure that Asik doesn't need to be a part of it.
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