The offense was crisp, Aaron Brooks sliced through the defense, Luis Scola awoke in the second half, and much like the Blazers game, the Rockets fought off every run their opponent tried to make. Today, the Rockets had eight players, count them eight players, score in double figures against the Utah Jazz on the road. Rick Adelman's offense of cutting, and specifically looking to take advantage of scoring opportunities is finally working—and the Rockets are following.
It starts with the initiation of the fast break, and it was apparent the Rockets plan from the devastating news of Yao Ming being out for the season was to run. In the preseason, they were committed to the cause—averaging nearly twice the amount of fast-break points compared to last season. I originally brushed it off as being "preseason," but the Rockets have proved nothing less in the early season.
What's the difference? How can the Rockets, who have lost their two best offensive players—two of the best in the league, be able to not only score more, but be more efficient from behind the arc without anyone to really draw the attention of the double team.
The answer is simple, off the ball movement. The past two game's heroes, Trevor Ariza and Chase Budinger, dominated stretches of the game without needing the ball.
Trevor's play in the fast break—specifically against the Blazers—was something the Rockets have lacked in the entire Tracy McGrady/Yao era. Ariza is a player that can use his body control and athletic finishing ability to not only leak out, but finish in transition. In the first quarter alone, Ariza had four dunks, three of which were in transition. The majority of Ariza's threes also either came in transition or spotting up from the dribble penetration.
In today's game against the Jazz, Budinger's ability to spot up, and come off screens ballooned the lead from what was a two-point game entering the fourth quarter into a blowout. This allows Brooks to do what he does best—and that's make plays with the ball in his hands. What surprises me the most, aside from his 21 point per game average, is that Brooks is showcasing his playmaking ability; averaging 8.5 assists per game so far in the early season.
Everyone has their well defined roles, Brooks and Ariza are the primary scorers from the perimeter. Scola is established as the post scorer and Hayes does all the dirty work on the inside, while being the high post passer on the offensive land. Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry add stability off the bench, while Budinger provides the X-Factor for the Rockets. If the shot is falling, the Rockets are very hard to beat.
Everyone has stepped up their games and invited the challenge, especially Ariza and Brooks, both of whom are averaging 21 points per game on the season. Chuck Hayes' play goes far beyond the stat sheet, he's the Rockets best low post defender, and is a huge difference maker on the defensive end. He's improved his finishing around the basket, and has always been an underrated passer from the high post. Today against the Jazz, he locked down Carlos Boozer, and on offense nearly grabbed a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Defensively the Rockets are not up to par as in previous seasons, but they've shown they can still buckle it down for stretches. For a team so undermanned, getting the key defensive stops and maximizing offensive possessions is the most you can ask for. Take the Jazz game for example, in the first half they scored 57 points, and the Rockets buckled down in the second half, holding the Jazz to only 39 points on less than 45 percent shooting from the field. With Shane Battier, and Hayes holding down the fort with Ariza's athleticism, and hard nosed players like Lowry off the bench, the Rockets are still more than capable on that end of the floor.
Every year, it's the same story. The Rockets face adversity and everyone counts them out—see Charles Barkley. Then every year, the Rockets surprise those critics with their hard work and determination. The Rockets may be missing their two best players, but they're not lacking anything in heart, and have a young hungry group of players out to prove they're more than just role players in this league. Ariza and Brooks are playing at an all-star level, Scola is starting to come around, and the bench has made huge productions.
With Adelman's offense implemented, and only bound to get better—potentially to even greater heights with a potential Tracy McGrady return—the Rockets will continue to prove those critics wrong to the point where we ask ourselves, "When will they ever learn?"
It's OK though, keep underrating the Rockets, they like flying under the radar.
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