Panic avoided! Rockets get first win

Put away the gas masks: the 2010-11 Houston Rockets have won an NBA game.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, the perfect tonic for a winless squad, came to town and the Rockets wasted no time getting that first ‘W’, rolling to a 120-94 rout Sunday night.

The win is the 12th straight for the Rockets over the Timberwolves, which is the second-longest winning streak against any single opponent in Houston franchise history (longest: 13 straight against the Oklahoma City Thunder from January 3, 2007 to December 19, 2009).

“Obviously I’m just really pleased with the way we came out and played after last night,” said Rockets coach Rick Adelman. “From the very start of the game we were aggressive, we were active. We played a solid game all the way through.”

Ish Smith Houston Rockets

Thrown to the fire: Without Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry, Ish Smith played 41 minutes

This Rockets team was different than the one that started the night before in San Antonio. Aaron Brooks, as expected, was sidelined and will be for several weeks while Kyle Lowry is also still on the mend, so rookie Ish Smith got his first NBA start. Yao Ming also was back tonight.

The Rockets controlled this game throughout — they led 60-37 at half and never even glanced at the rear-view — and that was in large part because they had a true quarterback in Smith. They took care of the basketball (23 assists to just 5 turnovers), played better defense (Timberwolves shot 37.4%) and seemed to get others involved (Shane Battier, who averaged less than 4 attempts per in the first 4 games, had 8 shots in the first half alone). Much like the squad that finished the game in San Antonio, this bunch looked like a team rather than five chickens with their heads cut off.

Now, before I gush too much over Ish, keep in mind that Brooks had to face Derek Fisher, Stephen Curry, Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul and Tony Parker while Smith got … Luke Ridnour and Sebastian Telfair. That’s not apples to apples. Also, the Timberwolves came into this game dead last in the league in shooting (38.9% from the field) so it’s hard to credit the Rockets defense too much.

But he played well. In 41 minutes he looked more like an experienced vet than an undrafted rookie and was a +22 on the floor. Yes, I’d rather be waterboarded than watch Ish Smith in shooting drills. He has little touch on his shot, particularly his runners (3-11 from the field), but he had 6 dimes to just 1 cough-up and made some gorgeous passes (See: Video: Ish Smith no-look pass to Hayes).

This isn’t Tracy McGrady‘s Rockets where Houston primarily needed scoring/shooting at the one to complement their two-guard’s halfcourt playmaking skills. With Brooks-Martin, the Rockets have a pair of potent scorers but they’re weaker in the playmaking and floor leadership department. That’s usually provided by Lowry, but he’s not been able to attend the party yet, so Ish brings something that’s been lacking.

Yao was strong as well. He had 13 points in just 17 minutes, hitting 3-5 from the floor and all 7 of his shots at the line. The Rockets did a better job in this one of making him a focal point (specifically they were very effective in the post-repost of Yao) but they have still have more progress to make here.

Yao wasn’t the only Rocket big that played well — Luis Scola led all scorers with 24 to go with 8 boards while Jordan Hill was again solid, putting up 14, 6 boards and 2 blocks in just 23 minutes. Whether it’s as a long-term contributor or as a trade piece come February, Hill’s progress is very important to this team.

Kevin Martin gave it a go with his ankle and it did appear to bother him some, but he had another typical game: 21 points in 24 minutes on an efficient 9-13 from the field. He and AB make a terrible defensive pairing, but Martin is putting up some terrific offensive numbers. Through 6 games he’s at 23.0 points on nearly 49% shooting, over 42% from downtown and almost 90% from the stripe.

One way the Rockets can improve right away is for Chase Budinger to hit a three. Any three. I don’t believe this will continue as a dreaded sophomore slump, but Budinger has missed 18 of his 20 long-range bomb attempts this season. A bust out is overdue.

On Deck
The monkey is off their back and that’s all that matters. It was indeed a softball toss to get the Timberpups at the Toyota Center, but after the five Randy Johnson fastballs they got to start the year, the Rockets needed a win no matter how it came.

Ish’s starting debut was nice, but it will be a different animal to go up against John Wall (19.4 ppg, 9.6 asst, 2.6 steals) Wednesday night in Washington. Through five games, the Wizards are the worst team in the league in defensive field goal percentage so look for the Rockets to get more open looks.

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