By Rob Mahoney
Houston is stuck between rotation players at the moment, as a pair of deadline deals pulled Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Toney Douglas, and Cole Aldrich straight out of Kevin McHale's rotation without any available reinforcements. Yet the Rockets roll on, and despite having to haphazardly fill the gaping hole where their entire power forward rotation used to be, they topped a second straight quality opponent with a balanced 108-96 win over the Nets.
• The Rockets and Nets both spent much of the night testing one another's defensive discipline. For the Rockets, that meant the usual dose of pick-and-roll play, which put Jeremy Lin (nine points and six assists) and James Harden (22 points and four assists) in a position to make plays and challenge Brooklyn's weak-side big men to keep up. Their success in that effort was unequivocal in the first half; optimal floor spacing pulled Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic well away from the action and thus gave them a longer rotation in their efforts to help, throwing off the timing of the Nets' entire defensive scheme. With so lengthy a window, Lin was able to spoon-feed the Rockets' big men for easy scores throughout the opening two quarters, and build up a solid lead on the basis of that initial action.
Brooklyn defended Lin on those pick-and-roll sequences much more effectively in the second half by pulling the big man defending the screen further back toward the rim. From there, that big man -- typically Brook Lopez -- simply waited for Lin deep in the paint, forcing Lin to pass out or attempt a long floater. Houston was still able to create enough open looks for its shooters (the Rockets went 16-for-33 from beyond the arc, and Carlos Delfino alone went 6-for-9) through that basic action to exploit the lapses in the Nets' defensive attention, but its overall efficiency dipped enough to keep the game competitive as Brooklyn fine-tuned its coverage in the second half.
As for the Nets, Brooklyn had an active game off the ball, often by using unexpected curl shooters to put the Rockets' defenders in a difficult position. Deron Williams (15 points, 13 assists) did a nice job of deferring and cutting, opening up room for the rest of the offense to function. Lopez (27 points, six rebounds) worked the high post well and provided a fulcrum for Brooklyn's ball movement. The seldom-used Teletovic (12 points, five rebounds) even got some burn ahead of Kris Humphries, and the Nets frequently ran him (and the hapless Donatas Motiejunas, who clearly wasn't comfortable locking and trailing) around screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
All of that movement opened up opportunities for the Nets to rotate around the perimeter and cut into open space, particularly as a handful of Rockets players were caught watching the ball instead of tracking their defensive marks. Hardly a great defensive showing by either team, but there was enough offense on both sides to keep this one entertaining.
• I alluded to this briefly above, but Williams was relieved of some of his conventional, ball-dominant point guard duties and was allowed to roam more frequently to find open shots and clearer passing lanes on the wing. The reason for that shift was the insertion into the starting lineup of C.J. Watson, who was filling in for the injured Joe Johnson. Watson took on even more of the Nets' shot-creating duties than Johnson often does, and in the process gave Brooklyn a different kind of offensive pivot point opposite Williams.
The blend still wasn't quite perfect (their combined 32 points came on 32 shots), but that duo created more positive play action for the Nets than it had previously and performed competently enough on defense to keep the margin manageable. That play of Watson and Williams as a tandem isn't likely to revolutionize anything about the way the Nets play (or even the way that P.J. Carlesimo constructs his rotation), but it would be nice for Brooklyn to find some sustained success with that pair considering that Johnson's injury -- the dreaded plantar fasciitis -- isn't some minor ding.
• Houston dealt four rotation regulars at the trade deadline, and only one of the players acquired (Thomas Robinson) figures to get regular playing time at any point this season. That leaves a huge opening for some of the lesser-used players on the roster -- many of whom are rookies -- to earn consistent minutes. The tryout began on Friday with an 11-minutes stint for Motiejunas (nine points, 4-of-5 shooting), a first-year big man with the potential to contribute on offense immediately. The key is his mobility. Motiejunas took advantage of the Nets' disorganized transition defense to create two fast-break scoring opportunities, and his ability to roll to the rim quickly and finish fluidly should make him a great complement to Lin and Harden. Not much can be expected of Motiejunas defensively at this point, and he's solely an effort rebounder. But that doesn't mean he can't play productively in short bursts, matchups permitting.
Greg Smith (10 points, 5-of-5 shooting) also has a chance to work his way back into the rotation after being nudged out by the since-departed Cole Aldrich. He's purely a catch-and-finish option for the Rockets' many capable drivers and passers, and a bit stronger than Motiejunas. That said, it's not as if that strength leads to notable defense or any kind of rebounding payoff. Smith is a specialist picked up on a minimum deal, and though he works well in Houston's offense, he's not good enough to score a guaranteed role with Motiejunas working hard and scoring in similar fashion.James Anderson