By Rob Mahoney
A game heavy with narrative implication turned out to be all about the basketball. Friday may have marked Jeremy Lin's first game against his former team, but Linsanity was a mere subplot in the Houston Rockets' demonstrative 131-103 win over the New York Knicks. (RECAP | BOX)
• Despite the occasional string of sound defensive rotations, this was a contest dictated by pure offensive potential. Chandler Parsons improbably kept pace with Carmelo Anthony in a first-half scoring contest -- Houston's second-year forward had 26 points before halftime, one more than his career high for a game, and he finished with 31 points on 13-of-17 shooting -- and the Rockets took his lead to exploit the Knicks at virtually every point of defensive weakness. They pulled center Tyson Chandler away from the basket with incredibly high ball screens and challenged Anthony and the Knicks' guards to provide sufficient help on the back lines. James Harden manipulated New York defenders with his deceptive ball control and footwork, and he racked up 16 free-throw attempts (making all of them) en route to 33 points. Houston doesn't run the most complicated offense, but its quick-hitting, screen-heavy attack forced New York to contort defensively far more than it felt comfortable, if not far more than it realistically could.
Anthony was so brilliant offensively that he actually started to disrupt the Knicks' overall efficiency as a result. With just a single source of scoring to rely on, New York made a conscious effort to get the ball to Anthony on possession after possession. The result was an awesome 37 points on just 24 shots, but also a team-wide offense hard-pressed to create through any alternative avenue. Anthony should hardly be blamed for the fact that his teammates failed to either create or convert open shots, but it was interesting to see how his hot shooting compromised the offensive efforts of a team that entered the game leading the NBA in points scored per possession.
• There was nothing all that impressive about his performance or final stat line (13 points, seven rebounds, three assists, four turnovers), but Lin's restraint was admirable as he faced the team that declined to match Houston's three-year, $25.1 million offer last summer. Many players opt to use these kinds of circumstances as a chance to make statements, but Lin played the same way he has all season, and with similar results.
He pushed on the break against New York's shaky transition defense and drew defenders in order to create scoring opportunities for others. That creative value was lost a bit on a Rockets team that thrived on the extra pass, but Lin was a vital propeller of Houston's pace and offense, which shot 51.7 percent from the field and made 14-of-25 from three-point range. Plus, he deferred to Parsons, who was in the midst of a career performance, and Harden, who had the Knicks wrapped around his finger all night. Lin contributed to a dominant offense without overplaying his role, and though that won't earn him all that many punny headlines in Saturday's papers, it was just what the Rockets needed.
• While Lin played a balanced game and both Parsons and Harden did the heavy lifting, Omer Asik was essential to the Rockets' efforts. One doesn't often look to dirty-work players in the aftermath of a 28-point victory, but Asik deserves ample credit for all of the little things he does so well: the awkward rebounding (he grabbed 14 boards), the brick-wall screen setting, the odd finish around the basket (he scored 18 points) and his sterling work as a one-man defense. Asik does it all except score consistently, and though that deficit can be painful at times, it's clear that the Rockets are already improving in their capacity to handle that added pressure.
Knicks coach Mike Woodson had his team blitz pick-and-roll ball handlers to start the second half -- a scenario that would have completely derailed Houston's half-court offense a few weeks ago. But on Friday, the Rockets handled those situations with poise. After setting a screen for Harden on one possession, Asik rolled patiently to the high post and waited there to offer his teammate a safety release. The next time down the floor, the high trap against Harden triggered a quick pass-out and counter drive from Lin, who was able to attack the basket easily with Chandler pulled so far away from the hoop.
With Asik doing so much so well and Houston finally learning how to best play with him on offense, the Rockets are well positioned to get fantastic production and defense from their newly signed center for quite some time.