It was a short week given the holidays with the Rockets playing only three games, all on the road. They lost at Chicago on Monday, then suffered losses on a back-to-back at Milwaukee and Indiana. Despite the loss, Thursday’s game against the Pacers left the fan base with a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings as it featured the return of Jalen Green from injury after nearly a month on the sidelines (more on this to come). The Rockets have the third-worst record in the league at 10-23, having gone 3-7 in their last 10 games. They’re tied with Detroit and Orlando with a 52.1% chance at a top four pick and a 14% chance at the top overall pick. Friends – the lottery odds are the real standings.
A triumphant return
Green was brilliant in his return from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him since Nov. 24, scoring 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including 6-for-9 on 3s, all in just 25 minutes against the Pacers. With Kevin Porter Jr., still sidelined, Green started in the backcourt next to Eric Gordon, serving as the de facto point guard. He showed off a quicker, cleaner release (to which he attributed the work he put in on his mechanics with assistant coach John Lucas while inactive) and hit multiple 3s off the dribble. On one occasion in the second half, he got his man leaning with a right-to-left crossover before stepping back into a long distance 3 that hit the bottom of the net. Once Green established the shot, he started attacking the basket, utilizing his blinding first step.
Green famously did not have the best start to his rookie campaign, shooting below 40% from the floor and below 30% from 3. Remember, he’s also 19 years old. More importantly, I see no reason to think that the lack of spacing (coming as a result of lineups featuring Daniel Theis at center) that impacted the entire roster didn’t impact Green negatively as well. As such, I expect Green to trend upwards as the season progresses. Before going down with injury, he scored 11 points in just 11 minutes against the Bulls, shooting 4-for-5 from the floor and looking vastly more confident off the dribble. I don’t know if it’s that Green is figuring things out or that he just simply has more room to operate with the lineup change.
My favorite part of the Pacers game were the plays where Green and fellow rookie Alperen Sengun interacted. It felt like a glimpse of the team’s future. On one possession in the first half, Sengun set a pick and then slipped it, darting to the hoop, with Green calmly finding him over the top. On another occasion, in the second half, Sengun caught the ball from the high post and, while Green drifted around the perimeter, rifled the pass almost immediately to a relocated Green for an open 3 that hit the bottom of the net (but didn’t count as Green had already stepped out of bounds).
I’ve dedicated many words on this page in asserting my opinion that Sengun is a future cornerstone of this franchise. Green, the second overall pick in last July’s draft, is obviously hoped to also be a cornerstone. Thursday’s game offered a glimpse of not only how these two players can coexist offensively but also how their skillsets can work cohesively, amplifying each other’s strengths. Sengun can be a hub from both the high post and low post but has also shown an ability to finish off the short roll. Meanwhile, Green isn’t just dangerous with the ball in his hands – he’s adept and even willing at moving without the ball on the perimeter.
The importance of that latter point can’t be understated. It’s a point I made during summer league after first watching Green play . For all of James Harden’s brilliance as a one-man offensive wrecking crew, the challenge in building a team around him was his lack of willingness to move without the ball. (This was, of course, what torpedoed Harden’s relationship with Chris Paul.) That’s not going to be a problem with Green as he works diligently to get himself open off the ball and in the process of doing so, keeps the defense occupied and attentive.
The week ahead
The Rockets get back to work this week before closing out 2021 with a slate of games against formidable opponents. On Monday, they’ll visit Charlotte before coming home for a three-game homestand. On Tuesday, the Rockets will host the Los Angeles Lakers, on Friday the Miami Heat, and on Saturday, the Denver Nuggets.
I’m mainly looking forward to the Lakers game because of the online buzz currently surrounding Russell Westbrook’s poor play in what is starting to look like a lost season for LeBron James and the Lakers. What can I say? I stopped feeling shame about Schadenfreude many years ago. Russ should have his way with Houston’s young guards just due to his physicality alone, but Gordon and David Nwaba should know how to handle him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gordon back off a few feet and let Russ fire away.
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