The Houston Rockets are one of those teams that have bewildering opponents with their ability to win games despite their perceived lack of "name" talent all season long, so I really can't act too surprised by the final score last night, as clearly the "better" team won 98-93, even if on first blush I think the Nets have some better players.
Yet, after Keyon Dooling (11 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists), drilled a three-pointer with 1:38 left in the game to tie the score at 91, I thought the Nets would defy my initial logic.
For a change of pace, the Nets were actually the benefactors of a team having a terrible offensive quarter, as the Rockets missed 8 of their last 10 shots in the third, en route to a 13 point performance for the quarter. While some of it was just bad luck for Houston (and a lot of bricks from Trevor Ariza), the Nets also played some stout defense. At the 2:46 mark, Josh Boone was one of the only Nets to make a stop on Carl Landry (26 points, 7 rebounds), as he played some nice post defense and blocked Landry's shot. About 40 seconds later, Yi Jianlian (17 points, 6 rebounds), making his first start since the fourth game of the season, was able to front Aaron Brooks on a dribble drive from the left elbow, forcing him into a contested jump shot which he missed. The Nets capped off their strong third quarter stand by playing great team defense off a missed shot by Keyon Dooling, getting back to stop the fast break, and forcing Luis Scola into a double dribble in the post. The Nets entered the fourth quarter down one, and were in position to steal a game from one of the Western Conference's (and league's) better teams.
But that almost seems to be Houston's game at this point - lull you into believing that your team can grab a victory from such a seemingly undermanned roster of players. They leave you scratching your head - did the Nets really give up 16 offensive rebounds and get outrebounded 51-39 against a team starting a 6'6" guy at Center? On that note, how did Brook Lopez only get 4 of his 17 points in the second half? With the game tied after the Dooling three-pointer, how does Aaron Brooks (17 points, 7 rebounds) blow by Devin Harris and get that layup over Yi who I thought was standing his ground pretty well along the baseline?
And truth be told, the Nets made their fair share of unforced errors down the stretch, which helps explains why they are where they are this season - now 2-28 and losers of their past 9 games, including their past three at home. Yi, who's really been a revelation since coming back from his knee injury earlier in the week, committed a really stupid foul on Carl Landry with about 2:40 left in the game and the shot clock on the verge of expiring, when he put his hands out to guard Landry just a bit too far and ended up making contact with his wrist. Then Yi made a huge dunk with about 2:25 left, driving baseline and showing an aggressiveness that I just have never seen from him before this recent two game set… unfortunately he let his emotions get the better of him and he ended up hanging on the rim way too long after the play, drawing the technical from the officials. You could say Yi was just trying to protect himself because of his forward momentum from the play, but if I'm being fair here, he could have a made a better case for himself if he let go of the rim about a second earlier.
Still, despite these mistakes, the Nets have looked like a different team the past two games. Yes, they're still not winning these games, and a case could be made that losing to a team like the Timberwolves at home was an embarrassment (however, I think with Kevin Love and a healthier Al Jefferson, the Wolves are a better team than we're giving them credit for). However, after their drubbing to the Raptors, and their second-half meltdown against the Lakers last weekend, the Nets have done a much better job of staying competitive for all four quarters. They're still missing a key component in Chris Doulgas-Roberts, a guy with a large enough offensive repertoire that could help get this team get over the hump. If the Nets could learn from these tough losses, they're going to find a way to turn this season around, and at least make a respectable run to get them out of the "worst ever" conversation.
Here a few more final thoughts after the game:
- Another key to Yi's return to the starting lineup is it helps other players on the roster return to their natural roles - namely Josh Boone (8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks). I thought Boone actually looked pretty good last night in his 20 minutes, getting the ball closer to the rim where he's actually able to do something with it, and he matches up much better against the league's backup centers and PFs.
- I can't believe there was a point before the season started where I thought Rafer Alston was a better option to backup Devin Harris at PG than Keyon Dooling. It's not that I didn't appreciate what Dooling did last season, but Alston had been a starter on two playoff-bound teams in the Rockets and Magic last season, and from a numbers perspective, looked like he fit the Nets style better. However, Alston has just been so bad, and really a lighting rod for controversy in how he's managed to alienate some of the team's younger players, that I really hope Kiki Vandeweghe sticks with Dooling (if he's healthy), and keeps Rafer on the bench. Sure, he's going to sulk, and probably pitch and moan his way into a buyout, but there's only been a small handful of occasions where he's actually been able to help the Nets this season.
- Can't get through the recap without mentioning how terrific Terrence Williams (9 points) looked last night. He had two incredible dunks - one on a fast break in the first half which he windmilled, and then a second during the third quarter where he blew by his defender, kept the ball low, and then exploded to the rim for the pump jam. With CDR still out with his ankle injury, there'd a part of me that wants to see Williams get the nod over Hassell, who really did nothing of merit in his 14 minutes last night, and doesn't even look like the defensive stopper he's been advertised as in recent years. However, I also understand if Kiki wants to keep building TWill's confidence off the bench.
- The Nets rebounding issues are really surprising to me. On paper, they have a bunch of tall and long players in Brook Lopez, Yi Jianlian and Josh Boone, while Terrence Williams has one of the better rebounding rates for a small forward. I guess this is just another negative aspect of this team we have to keep an eye on to see if they can start learning from their mistakes. From my perspective, it just seems to be an issue of awareness. There are plenty of times when it just looks like the Nets are standing around as a shot clock is expiring, or a long three is shot, rather than try and get themselves in position to rebound the bad shot.