Despite loss, Rockets come to play in Game 2

Patrick Beverley and Kevin McHale of the Houston Rockets

The outcome didn't change, but Beverley and the Rockets were a different team in Game 2

Now this was something to build on.

The Rockets didn’t leave victorious Wednesday night, falling 105-102 in Game 2, and they come back to Houston in an 0-2 hole, but for the first time in this matchup, the Rockets look like they’re ready to make it a series.

Patrick Bleepin’ Beverley

The Rockets adjusted their starters for this one, taking out Greg Smith and going with a three guard lineup of Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Jeremy Lin.

It paid off, and that’s because of Beverley.

The 6-foot-1 guard, who just four months ago was playing in Russia, got his first NBA start, and oh by the way… it was against one of the league’s elite point guards in a hostile arena in a critical playoff game. He responded with 16 points on 7-13 shooting (2-4 from deep), 12 rebounds (including 5 key offensive boards), 6 assists, 2 steals and a block.

The stats were terrific, but his impact was clearly visible when guarding Russell Westbrook (29 points on 10-26 shooting). You’re not going to stop Westbrook, but you can make it tough on him and get in his head, forcing him to try to do too much to compensate. Beverley did both. I initially thought he was playing like a poor man’s Rajon Rondo, but probably a better comparison for his impact was Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe — a quick, athletic, aggressive guard who goes hard on both ends. I think the TNT broadcaster summed it up best: “Patrick Beverley, how tough are you?!”

I can not see any way Kevin McHale goes away from heavy minutes for Beverley. His impact was the biggest difference between the Game 1 blowout and the Game 2 thriller.

Harden and Lin

James Harden finished with 36 points and he made some tough shots. He couldn’t hit from long range (1-7), but what I liked was that he was more efficient inside the arc (8-17, 47%) and feasted at the free throw line (17-20). This is the straw that stirs the drink and sets the stage for everything else.

I thought starting Beverley and letting him focus on guarding Westbrook was a good move for Lin, who needs to become an offensive weapon if the Rockets are to have any chance in the series. I think Lin played fairly well in the first half (7 points on 3-7 shooting, 3 assists, 4 boards), but he collided with Thabo Sefolosha late in the first half and suffered a muscle contusion in his right chest area and had to sit out the second half (see video).

Three-Pointers Not Falling

At this point, Houston’s early to mid-season dominance from three-point range seems a distant memory. They are hitting 32.4% from distance in their last 19 games and shooting just under 30 of them a night. If compared to season-long numbers, that would be more three-point attempts per game than any other team and at the second worst efficiency (trailing only Minnesota).

Yet, in Game 2, that lowly percentage could have been good enough to win the game. The Rockets were just 10-35 (28.6%) from distance. Simply put, the Rockets can not win this series unless Chandler Parsons (4-15 in the series), Carlos Delfino (5-17), Harden (2-13) and Lin (1-7) start connecting from downtown.

Finding The Open Man

Another big difference between the two games was that the Rockets were moving the ball around trying to find the open man. If they had knocked down a few more threes, they win this game. Period.

A really good play where you can see the Rockets’ good ball movement is with 8:00 left in the second quarter. The ball is thrown to Harden between wing and baseline and he’s immediately doubled by Greg Smith’s man. Derek Fisher leaves Lin to body up Smith and Lin is calling for the ball on the weak side because he’s wide open.

Ball movement saves the day. Harden quickly whips it to Beverley who wastes no time finding Lin. With Fisher quickly trying to recover, Lin pulls the trigger on a three on the bounce and nails it. Both the quick passing and Lin’s lack of hesitation in getting it off are things we didn’t see in Game 1. Far too often, Lin hesitates and lets the defense get set and Houston’s offense has to reboot. That didn’t happen here and it paid off.

Smith’s Struggles

Greg Smith has played a total of 31 minutes in two games in this series and the Rockets have been outscored by 49 points in that time. FORTY-NINE!

His two-minute stretch in the third quarter was disastrous as a tied game became an 11-point Rocket deficit during that stretch when he came in to play center for Omer Asik (9 points, 14 boards).

He watched Westbrook go baseline by him — fouling him on the body — and the speedy guard scored with ease. Three-point play. He miscommunicated with Aaron Brooks on a simple pass and he let it go by him out of bounds. Turnover. And with 3:55 left in the third, we probably saw the biggest demonstration of the problem.

Smith is guarding Kendrick Perkins, who runs up to the three-point line top of the key to set a screen to free Westbrook. Smith’s problem is two-fold: He comes out way too far on the wing and incorrectly reads the direction of the screen. As a result, Perkins hits Chandler Parsons hard with the pick and Westbrook sees daylight. He bursts through an open lane down the middle and cuts through for an easy deuce… and to boot, Smith fouls him by trying to swipe his shoulder from behind.

It’s not all Smith’s fault, but this is a tough one. We’ve always known the Rockets lose a lot when Asik goes out, but Smith has been especially ineffective so far in this series. It will be interesting to see if this opens the door for rookie Terrence Jones.

Little Help, Refs?

I’m not blaming the officials for the outcome here, but there were two calls in this game that really bothered me.

With 1:01 left in the fourth and the Rockets down just one, Sefolosha hit a wide open three-pointer that essentially won this game, but you can clearly see why no one is near him: Kendrick Perkins is playing tug-of-war with Chandler Parsons’ wrist, literally holding him and pulling him in to keep him from closing out on the shooter. The official is standing right there looking at the two of them (see the play).

It reminded me of the 2008 playoffs when Luis Scola was called for an offensive foul on Andrei Kirilenko just as Bobby Jackson hit a three that would have tied the game against the Jazz. That one was against the home team in the final minute and nowhere near as egregious. Perkins should have been called for an offensive foul and the final minute would have been a different game strategically.

To a lesser extent, the technical that was called on Greg Smith in the second quarter for staring down his opponent after a dunk frustrated me because of the timing. That’s a fairly standard call by the book, but it came on the tail end of a two-minute temper tantrum by Russell Westbrook where he was essentially doing the same thing multiple times.

Westbrook was furious that Beverley tried to go for a steal while he was calling timeout with under 6 minutes to go in the second quarter. The OKC guard fell down trying to spin away from it and came up hobbling on his knee while looking over at the Rocket bench. So you knew how Westbrook was going to react. With 5:22 left in the second quarter, Westbrook stares down Beverley, then violently slaps his hand away. With 5:02 left, he stares down Beverley again after scoring a fast break bucket. With 4:47 left after a foul, Westbrook walks up to the Rockets bench and talks trash. With 4:03 left, Westbrook slaps Beverley’s hand away when he tried to help him up.

No technical on any of those plays.

45 seconds later, Greg Smith grabs an offensive board, throws down a dunk on Ibaka and he flexes and stares at him. Out comes the whistle.

Again, if you want to call it, great — but keep it consistent.

Summary

I had forgotten what it was like when your team is in a tight playoff matchup late — your stomach feels like it’s in your throat. This was an intense, exciting game that showed the Rockets have come to play. The Rockets held the Thunder to 15 points fewer than they averaged against Houston in their first four matchups, and the Rockets’ impressive 21-2 run in the fourth quarter, turning a 15-point disadvantage into a 4-point lead in less than six minutes, inspires hope. I expect the Thunder to play better, but the Rockets are capable of much more as well — especially from long distance. Game 3 is going to be a dogfight.

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