Terrence Jones entered Monday’s game against Toronto with a whopping 15 minutes played in the first seven regular season games combined, all in mop-up duty. Once considered the favorite for Houston’s starting power forward spot, a strong preseason from Omri Casspi coupled with a desire to experiment with Omer Asik alongside Dwight Howard pushed Jones out of the rotation entirely.
But with reserve swingman Francisco Garcia out with the flu, the Rockets (5-3) had minutes to fill, and the second-year power forward from Kentucky took full advantage. In 32 minutes, Jones collected 10 rebounds and blocked four shots on the interior, in addition to playing excellent perimeter defense down the stretch against Rudy Gay (who shot 11-of-37 from the field — below 30%).
Oh, and his 7 points on offense included the go-ahead basket with the game tied in double overtime, 104-104, with barely over a minute left.
“I prepared [for tonight] like I prepare every game, to be ready to play if coach gave me the opportunity,” said Jones. “I think I did real well, because we came up with the win.”
Despite not playing a single meaningful minute to begin the season, head coach Kevin McHale trusted Jones enough that he played every second of two overtimes — and that confidence paid off in Houston’s 110-104 win over the Raptors. Against a Toronto team that started the athletic Amir Johnson and Gay at the forward spots, Jones’ versatility and transition skills proved critical.
“I thought his energy was amazing on both ends of the floor,” said Howard, a guy who knows quite a bit about the value of versatile forwards, having played alongside Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson in his prime years with the Orlando Magic. “I think [Jones] did an excellent job on Rudy Gay tonight. He’s big enough to guard threes, fours and fives.”
“I thought Terrence played really well,” McHale said after the game. “Coming into the year, I really thought that Terrence or D-Mo [Donatas Motiejunas], one of those guys would have to play that style of ball. Terrence has worked hard and continued to do all his work. For Terrence not to play and then go out there and play 32 minutes, that’s hard to do. I’m proud of him.”
Casspi was still the first big man off the Houston bench, replacing Asik with about six minutes remaining in the first quarter, as he usually does.
But with two minutes left in the opening frame, Jones entered the game in place of Parsons, pushing Casspi to the small forward spot. The Rockets bumped their lead from three to 10 almost immediately, and Jones was rewarded with a spot in the starting lineup for the second half (replacing Asik). It marked the first half of the 2013-14 season in which Asik did not start, and McHale said following the game that he was only “50/50” regarding the Asik/Howard lineup going forward.
Should the two-center experiment ultimately fail, the debate has been whether Jones, Motiejunas or Greg Smith would be the first spare Houston big man to earn significant playing time alongside Howard. It turned out Jones was first in line, and he made the most of his initial opportunity.
“He’s a second-year player, and it’s very easy to start getting down on yourself [if you don’t play], but I told him to stick with it,” McHale said of Jones. “I thought he did a really good job.”
Garcia is likely to return when the Rockets play in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. But with Casspi nursing a strained left knee ligament and results from the Howard/Asik pairing mixed at best, Jones should have every opportunity to hold his rotation spot going forward.