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Game Day: Rockets vs. Suns

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 122-108 win over the Phoenix Suns

HOUSTON - The Rockets showed no mercy.

Blessed with a massive advantage in the frontcourt against Phoenix, Houston had little interest in messing around and letting the Suns off the hook. Their plan wasn’t subtle, nor did it need to be. The Rockets wanted to batter and bludgeon Phoenix down low with a steady dose of Dwight Howard dunks and other assorted gimmes. And after that cycle had run its course, Houston simply uncorked a slight variation of the same theme. Why do anything else while the Suns were content to defend Houston’s All-Star one-on-one with the likes of Miles Plumlee, Alex Len and Channing Frye?  

The results were predictable enough: Howard dominated and detonated on his way to delivering 34 points and 14 rebounds. And though the Suns hung around and hovered about well into the fourth quarter, Houston’s ground-and-pound attack ultimately landed more than enough body blows to carry the Rockets to a 122-108 unanimous decision.

“I’m just being patient, letting my teammates find me in the right spots and not rushing my shots,” Howard said after the game when asked for the keys to his success tonight. “I just wait for (opponents) to make a decision: if they’re going to stay home and invite me to go one-on-one that’s fine with me; f they double-team, then I’m just going to find my guys and make plays out of the post. The more we do that, then we’re all going to get better.”

Such was the case Wednesday night as the Rockets presented a pick-your-poison dilemma that Phoenix never solved and one that led to the Suns’ ultimate demise. For the vast majority of the contest, the Suns gulped, closed their eyes and elected Howard as their toxin of choice, hoping he wouldn’t fatally punish their insides on the way down. Time after time, however, Houston’s big man made them pay for their decision, unleashing a torrent of thunderous slams and sweeping hooks that laid waste to Phoenix’s best laid plans.

But truth be told, even when the Suns sent a second defender Howard’s way, the results were hardly any better. That strategy simply opened up shooting windows and driving lanes for Howard’s teammates who were only to happy to seize the opportunity to contribute to the Rockets’ rapidly rising scoring total. Phoenix never did find a suitable answer for slowing Houston’s offense. As a result, the Suns were left to burn as the center of the Rockets’ universe had his way all night long, highlighting just how effective he – and, by extension, his entire team – can be when Houston is able to take full advantage of his talents within the flow of its high-powered offense.

We have to understand that we have to (get Howard the ball) in the flow,” Jeremy Lin explained after the game. “Coach always talks about that because we’re not just going to come down, stop all of our running, stop all of our pick-and-roll play and just throw it into him – that’s not who we are and it’s not who we’re designed to be. It’s a balance and I think on certain nights when he has it going and there’s a clear advantage we go to him even more than normal, but on every single night we need to get him involved right away.”

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

- The Rockets enjoyed a 21-4 edge in second chance points when these two teams met back in December, and Houston wasted no time flexing its muscle in that area tonight. The game actually began with Terrence Jones ripping down two offensive rebounds on Houston’s opening possession; one that ultimately ended with James Harden hitting a 3 (snapping a personal 0-for-17 3-point drought against the Suns in the process).

Turns out that was just a harbinger of things to come for Jones, who needed just seven minutes to rack up 9 points, six boards (four of which came on the offensive end) and a nasty swat of an ill-fated Suns shot. Jones also did this:

That jaw-dropping slam served as just the latest exclamation mark in Jones’ remarkable, rapid ascension from supporting cast member to marquee attraction. The second-year forward manages to do something noteworthy on a nearly nightly basis these days, and that almost always includes at least one ‘Wow!’ play per game.

"It’s just opening up for me" he said after finishing the game with 19 points, 9 boards and three blocked shots. "I’m getting a lot more opportunities and a lot more minutes and guys are believing in me. There’s a lot of eyes on (Harden and Howard) every game and I just try to play off of that, get offensive rebounds and just do what I can.

"It took a while and I’m still learning, still trying to get better each game."

That sound you just heard in the distance: Pure, unadulterated terror from opposing teams petrified of the thought of Jones continuing to become even more dynamic than he already is.

- James Harden's last 2 games against the Suns produced just 15 points per game, less than 23 percent shooting from the field and aforementioned unsightly 0-for-17 mark from 3. Not surprisingly, the All-Star seemed to take his mano-a-mano matchup with Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker personally right from the start. Both players spent a good chunk of tonight’s contest yapping back and forth at each other, but Harden’s game did plenty of talking in the early going as well. By halftime, Houston’s All-Star shooting guard had already racked up 16 points, thanks in large part to his 10-for-10 shooting from the charity stripe.

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- A simple glance at the Suns’ roster made it clear beforehand that Phoenix doesn’t have anything close to the beef and brawn necessary to handle Dwight Howard down low. So it was hardly a surprise to see him absolutely bully, abuse and maul anyone and everyone Phoenix threw his way. Howard was hyper aggressive and absolutely dominant right from the start, punishing the Suns’ conscious decision not to send double-teams his way. By halftime, he was a team-leading +13 during his 19 minutes of action, having tallied 15 points and six boards during that time.

"Nights like this when he’s got it rolling and he’s efficient, we’ve just got to keep giving him the ball," said Chandler Parsons. "There’s no way those guys can guard him one-on-one, and when they have to start bringing two (defenders) that’s when our offense becomes unguardable."

- It wasn’t all roses and rainbows for Houston in the first half, however. The Rockets’ transition and interior defense were found wanting, especially whenever Howard was on the bench getting a breather. The high-octane Suns made mincemeat of Houston’s 12-point first quarter lead, using a 24-8 blitz to grab an advantage of their own. Nearly all of those points came either at the rim or the free throw line as Phoenix pushed the pace and generated a plethora or prime scoring opportunities. As a result, the Suns owned a surprising 32-26 edge in paint points and a 17-13 advantage in points scored via fast breaks by the half, allowing Phoenix to stay well within striking distance.

- If the Suns harbored any hope that halftime would serve to cool off Howard and Jones, goodness gracious, those dreams were dashed in a hurry. Both players continued to annihilate Phoenix’s overmatched frontcourt with regularity as the Rockets again started to build a bit of a bulge. The play that perhaps best summed up their mastery: a Jones-led fast break that saw him keep his head on a swivel the entire time until he picked out Howard beneath the hoop at which point he lofted an alley-oop pass that Houston’s All-Star center promptly slammed home.

Another positive result of Jones’ sparkling performance: It served to play a huge role in making Phoenix’s Channing Frye a complete non-factor tonight. Frye had no hope of dealing with Jones’ athleticism and physicality on the defensive end and with his shot M.I.A. – Frye was just 3-of-11 from the field, including a 1-of-6 mark from distance – the Suns’ normally sweet-shooting stretch four didn’t contribute much of anything for his club at the other end either.

- Midway through the third quarter, Pat Beverley drained a triple to improve Houston’s hit rate from distance to a rather robust 9-of-13. The last time these two teams met, Houston made nine 3s as well … in 31 attempts. The Rockets finished the night 11-of-16 from distance.

- Throughout a good chunk of the second half, it felt as if the Rockets were one really good run away from putting the Suns away. And yet every time Houston appeared on the verge of doing precisely that, Goran Dragic found a way to reel the Rockets back in. The former H-Town hero displayed the sort of form that placed him squarely in the All-Star conversation this season, scoring 23 points to go along with 8 assists and 6 rebounds, all compiled with his signature flair and wily pizzazz.

- With Phoenix having trimmed its deficit down to four points near the midpoint of the final frame, Houston utilized some exquisite ball movement to again keep the Suns at bay. It began with a rare Phoenix double-team of Howard down low, leading to a smart kick-out that eventually led to a beautiful one-touch pass from Parsons (quietly terrific as usual with 19 points, 7 boards and 6 dimes) to Jeremy Lin for a corner 3 that hit nothing but net.

"That’s exactly what I was talking about earlier," Parsons said when asked about that specific play. "When Dwight’s going to draw attention, they’ve got to bring two and then he swings it out to me. I had a good shot but Jeremy had a great shot. That’s just the way we have to play and that’s the mindset we have to have. When we play that way we’re so much better and so hard to guard."

- As Houston continued to pull away late, the desperate Suns played the Hack-a-Howard card to predictable results. The Rockets came into the game 7-1 in games when opponents have incorporated that tactic – and that one loss came courtesy of the Lakers when Steve Blake delivered that back-breaking, buzzer-beating 3 – and Houston’s win probability has either held steady or actually increased every time an opponent has put Hack-a-Howard to use. The Suns fared no better as Howard hit 5-of-6 from the line to put the finishing touches on his masterful 34-point, 14- rebound performance.

- Houston's fourth quarter defense has to be commended after holding the high-scoring Suns to just 18 points in the final period. They key, not surprisingly, was the Rockets' ability to shut off the paint and slow Phoenix's fast break attack. After getting burned in both areas in the first half, Houston conceded a mere 12 paint points and just a single, solitary fast break point in the second.

- The Rockets’ win improves their record to 33-17 on the season and represents their fourth consecutive victory. They’ll have a chance to match their season-high 5-game win streak Saturday night when they travel to Milwaukee to face the woebegone Bucks.

NOTES AND QUOTES

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On the last seven minutes of the game) “Defense got locked in. We held them to 45 (points) in the second half and 18 (points) in the fourth quarter. Some shots they gave them were tough shots and our defense got better. We got a little tied in with each other. The first half, both teams were scoring up a storm. We had 66 (points) and they had 63 (points) at half. We knew that if we got some defense we could get some separation. We got some defensive stops. Dwight was big in the paint. That was one of our better free throw shooting games of the year – 33-for-42 attempts. Overall, I think that's good for a team.”

(On finding Dwight Howard in the post) “I thought we missed him a couple of times but I thought we found him better. We just have to keep working on passing the ball to him, being better post feeders. I thought we hit him a couple of times. I thought 'this helps when Dwight gets a couple of spin-offs when they start overplaying him'. If he gets a couple of spin-off lobs then that helps.”

(On 3-point shooting) “They (Suns) came down a couple of times and double teamed (on Dwight Howard). For the most part, one time they came down and double-teamed and we had a swing-out. Chandler (Parsons) threw it out to Jeremy (Lin) and Jeremy made a three (pointer). We moved the ball well. A couple of times they (Suns) went down there. They really didn't double team that much and Dwight was very efficient tonight both from the line and from the field.”

(On Terrence Jones' play) “I think Terrence is getting a little more comfortable with starting and getting more consistent with his play and effort all the time. I said this all year, he had been coming on and playing really well. I think ever since he's moved into the starting line up, he's been blossoming and growing. He's still got a long way to go because he's a young kid but he's been playing very well for us.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On what was successful tonight) “We were aggressive. We were in attack mode basically for all four quarters. Guys did a good job of making plays. Dwight did a phenomenal job of taking his time in the post and making layups and hook shots.”

(On going up against P.J. Tucker) “He is a good defender, he is strong.  He tries to get into you and take you off of your spots. I was trying to get myself up a little bit. Dwight did a great job of really carrying us tonight throughout the entire game. We were just trying to feed the ball into him and let him make the plays.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On scoring 34 points) “I've just been patient and I let my teammates find me in the right spot. I'm not rushing my shots. A lot of shots that I missed tonight I was rushing at the end of the shot.”

(On his teammates finding him) “We did a better job tonight. We just gotta do it both ways, get up and down, get some points in transition, work the pick and roll and also post up. Once we get all three things figured out on the offensive end and on the defensive end get stops then we will become a better team.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On Dwight Howard's huge offensive game) “It makes things a lot easier because he is going to eventually start drawing double teams. He is making it hard for them to contain him one on one down low and it's going to open up a lot of open shots on the perimeter. Nights like this we just got to keep getting him the ball. There is no way those guys can guard him one on one. They're going to have to start bringing two and that's when our offense will be unguardable.”

(On the Suns) “They are up and coming. They are a good team. They play really fast. Goran (Dragic) is an All-Star in my eyes. He is really, really good and in transition. He is unguardable. They have a lot of shooters that can space the floor. Gerald Green is having a great year. (P.J.) Tucker is a really good defender. They have a lot of pieces that they can do a lot of stuff with.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the Rockets second half effort) “In the second half I think we were finally able to close out a little bit. I think we did a good job of fourth quarter defense. I think that was important and then I think we were probably scoring, maybe. Not at the same rate because we started so hot but at the rate that was good enough for us to get some distance.”

(On the Rockets ball movement) “It just opens everything up. The ball is zipping around and it is fun to watch when we see ourselves getting stops and moving the ball. Dwight might score on a post up. James (Harden) might get a pick and roll or transition, Chandler hits a three (pointer). It (the ball) is moving around and when you are attacking on all cylinders it is really tough to stop.”

PHOENIX SUNS COACH JEFF HORNACEK

(On the game) “We didn’t stop anybody. We didn’t stop anybody last night either. Our defense hasn’t been very good. Houston shot 55% and got whatever they wanted. For us, we can’t have little mental mistakes. We had four or five of them just entering the ball to the wing. Little things like that kill you.”

(On the Rockets front line) “They started the game 16-to-four and then we tried to battle back and made it a game there for a while, but we can’t come out and start like that. If you don’t score, fine, but if you don’t give up easy buckets, it was easy for them. There was no resistance from us to put up 122 is just too much. A lot of games are won and lost at the beginning. You let a team get their confidence early and then they’re hard to stop. You always want to try and stop guys early and not give them the first easy hoop and then they may start thinking about it a little more. They got easy lay ups, wide open shots, and now their confidence is they can score from anywhere and you can’t stop guys in the NBA when they have that confidence.”

(On the fourth-quarter Suns run) “We took some bad shots and we had some open ones, Channing (Frye) had a couple that he lined up and didn’t make and then we got in that scramble mode just trying to get it back quickly and got down 10. You have to make some shots and typically when we win, we’re making those kind of shots.”

GORAN DRAGIC

(On coming off a back-to-back losses losing gas) “We started the first quarter and it was bad. They did everything for what they’re known for, driving, kicking, open three’s and then they put the ball in (Dwight) Howard’s hand in the low post and we had trouble with that. We started playing better and came back, but it was not enough fuel to get over the hump.”

(On the game) “We were not able to get stops and after back to backs, we were tired and I think they didn’t have a game for a few days. They’re a good team, a playoff team and they have a lot of weapons. Their ‘bigs,’ they can all stretch the floor and then they were able to put the ball in Dwight Howard’s hands and it’s kind of tough to double team. He’s a tough cover.”

(On the Hack-a-Howard) “He’s hitting those free throws and I think if he’s going to continue like that, then teams are not going to do that any more. I don’t know how much he shot today, 12-for-18 and that speaks for itself.”

P.J. TUCKER

(On his defensive matchup against James Harden) “It was good. I thought we got ourselves in position to come back. We let them get going early after giving up back to back thirty point quarters and that makes it tough to win on the road. He’s a great scorer, but they had a lot of guys contribute tonight. Dwight (Howard) played big and it was more of a team effort for them tonight.”

(On the Suns recent defensive lapses) “I don’t know, we have to figure it out. We’re giving up way too many points on turnovers that turn into points, not rebounding the ball well. We have to eliminate that stuff and have to finish games off on the road. I think we’re letting teams dig in to us and we’re not getting stops off the break. In the first half, after we got stops and started running a little bit, then it takes the pressure off. It all seems to depend on our defensive stops.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,217 tonight, giving the Rockets 25 sellouts on the season.

The Rockets came up with a 122-108 triumph over the Suns tonight, making .549 (39-71 FG) from the field and a season-best .688 (11-16 3FG) from 3-point range. Houston shot a season-low .352 (31-88 FG, 9-31 3FG) from the field in dropping a 97-88 decision in the last meeting vs. Phoenix (12/4/13).

Houston is now a combined 121-of-225 (.538) from the field over the last three games (1/29/14-2/5/14), reaching .500 from the floor in all three contests. The Rockets hit .500 or better from the field in a season-best four straight games (11/16/13-11/23/13).

Houston ran off with a 25-18 edge in fast-break points tonight. The Rockets also matched their season high of 29 points off the break in the last game vs. Cleveland (2/1/14).

The Rockets scored 66 points in the first half on .500 (22-44 FG, 7-10 3FG) shooting. Houston hit just .298 (14-47 FG, 2-13 3FG) over the opening two quarters in the prior meeting vs. Phoenix (12/4/13).

Dwight Howard notched a game-high 34 points (11-17 FG, 12-18 FT), 14 boards, three steals and two blocks tonight, which marked his fifth 30-point, 10-rebound performances of the season. It stands as the most 30-10 games by a Rockets player in a single season since Yao Ming had six in 2007-08. Howard also has 20-plus points in a season-best four consecutive games (1/28/14-2/5/14).

James Harden finished with 23 points (4-10 FG, 3-5 3FG) on the strength of a 12-for-12 outing from the free throw line. Harden (3,022) tonight became just the third player to score at least 3,000 points in his first 120 games with the Rockets: Elvin Hayes (3,320) and Tracy McGrady (3,056).

Terrence Jones posted 19 points (8-12 FG), nine rebounds and a game-high three blocks tonight. Jones has now put up 13 games this season with three or more blocks (Rockets record: 11-2).

Chandler Parsons recorded 19 points (8-12 FG, 3-3 3FG), seven boards, a team-high six assists and two steals tonight. He picked up his 20th career 15-point, five-rebound, five-assist game (Rockets record: 14-6).

Goran Dragic led six Suns in double-figure scoring with 23 points (6-13 FG, 9-9 FT), eight assists, six rebounds and three thefts tonight, extending his career-long streak of 20-plus points to six straight games.

Gerald Green added 13 points (5-14 FG) and six rebounds tonight. In his prior 30 starts this season, Green has averaged 15.1 points, 2.3 3-point makes and 1.1 steals, while shooting .432 from the field.

Markieff Morris, who had 11 points (5-9 FG) tonight, has now scored 10-plus points in 12 straight games, which is a career-long streak.