Loss to Lakers painful, but there were positives

Houston Rockets Brad Miller vs. Lakers

Brad Miller made some nice passes in his Houston Rockets debut

When Kobe Bryant beats you, you live with it. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest… not fun, but understandable.

But when Shannon Brown and Steve Blake beat you, that’s a tough pill to get down.

That’s what happened Tuesday night in the Rockets opener as Houston controlled most of the first three quarters, then hit a wall, looking a bit clueless trying to contain a three-point onslaught from the Lakers bench duo in a 112-110 loss in LA.

What makes it more difficult to swallow is that the Rockets played exceptionally well in the first half, exploding for 62 points behind the double-barrel backcourt attack of Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks. The pair hit 6-9 from downtown, combining for 37 points in the first two periods, and the excitement in the arena from the Lakers ring ceremony evaporated pretty quick.

But also on full display was the other side of the coin with Houston’s starting backcourt. Yes, they’re a serious challenge for defenses, but they’re also seriously defensively-challenged.

Go back and watch how Brown and Blake beat the Rockets in the final 13 minutes of game action (I have. Three times. Please help me.) They consistently burned Martin and Brooks from long range. Now there’s not much you can do when a career 33% three-point shooter like Brown hits 4 of 5, but a hand or two up is always nice. On one play, Brown got the ball from 25-feet out with 1.5 ticks left on the shot clock and Martin was still giving him enough space to stop a drive.

Brooks has even less of an excuse because shooting threes is what Blake does.

So on defense, I think there’s a still a question mark. Having Kyle Lowry return is going to be a boost, but your big minute backcourt can’t cause the dam to break, as they did over a 7-minute span late in the third/early in the fourth when the Lakers made up a whopping 19 points, turning an 11-point Rockets advantage into an 8-point deficit.

But this was a nationally-televised road game against the Lakers, back-to-back champions and a team unanimously considered to still be best in the West, and Houston was right there for the win. Got to love that — there were definite positives.

Miller Time
Here’s a guaranteed way to cheer you up: Close your eyes and imagine David Andersen is backing up Yao.

Feel better?

Brad Miller, in his Rocket debut, was solid on the boards (9 rebounds in 25 minutes) and showed why he will be an asset out of the high post. He’s committed to setting solid screens (trust me — not every player is) and he’s a terrific passer. He had two gems in the first half to a cutting Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger. It was the same play where both Miller and the baseline cutter reacted, but Miller threaded the needle both times. Defensively Miller may be a seven-foot tall piñata, but the Brent Barry comparisons don’t fly — he is going to play a key role and he’s going to fit in nicely. Here’s the video below:

Yao is coming along
The primary reason I don’t pick the Rockets as a top seed in the West (I’m guessing 49 wins) is the uncertainty of Yao Ming. You’ve got a cap on his playing time and restrictions on back-to-back games, and that’s a problem when you’re not sure how much you can count on such a large piece of the puzzle.

Case in point: With 6:30 left in the game and the Lakers up 92-91, Yao fouled out… but he was done for the night anyway in the next 60 seconds because he was at 23 minutes played. How difficult does that make it for the Rockets when you have no choice but to pull your game-changing player at such a critical moment? Let’s not even throw out the overtime possibility.

Still, Yao looked pretty good. Sure, there were some problem moments (like when Shannon Brown just took the ball right out of his hands in the post), but he’s progressing nicely. 9 points and 11 boards in 23 minutes and he got off more shots (11) than I anticipated. He doesn’t look tentative on his foot, and that’s all that matters — the rest will get better with each passing game.

Depth
The best way I can sum up the Rockets depth is that I am constantly entertained by their lineups, and that’s rare. There are no pauses, no convenient times to check the fridge, no “Oh, Ryan Bowen’s in” fan timeouts where you triple-check that the DVR isn’t lagging behind.

With a second team consisting of Miller, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee and (usually) Kyle Lowry, Adelman can keep the quality coming. I’d still give that up in a heartbeat in a trade for a superstar, but the Rockets are going to win some games on their ability alone this year to run quality for 48.

On Deck
No time to rest. After the Lakers, any other West opponent would be a step down, but let’s hope the Rockets don’t sleep on the Warriors tonight. It was backcourt defense that stung in LA, and Golden State runs Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry at you as well as a big who isn’t afraid to get up and down in David Lee. Got to come back home with a split.

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