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Game Day: Rockets vs. Magic

Observations and analysis from Houston's 98-88 win over Orlando

VIDEOS: Rockets vs. Magic - 12/08/2013

HOUSTON - Dwight Howard's affinity for superheroes is no secret. So on the night of his 28th birthday, the Rockets gave him the perfect present: a performance that brought to mind a basketball version of the Fantastic Four. 

Howard dominated his former team en route to racking up 20 points and 22 rebounds. James Harden was masterful, falling just two rebounds shy of producing a triple-double. Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons produced their increasingly common nightly magic routine. And as a result, the Rockets’ rode the production of their impactful quartet to a 98-88 win over Orlando.

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Houston’s best players set the tone early, ensuring this week would not begin as last week’s did when the Rockets walked right into the trap set in Salt Lake City. Parsons and Harden, in particular, took turns ripping Orlando’s very vulnerable defense to shreds, wreaking havoc with their ability to weave into the paint before dishing off to wide-open teammates eager to feast off the veritable offensive bounty being served to them by Houston’s primary playmakers. Howard, meanwhile, claimed ownership of the offensive glass, leading an all-out attack in that area as the Rockets rebounded more than 34 percent of their misses on the night.

Houston was buoyed by a remarkable 23-3 first quarter run that allowed them to seize an advantage they never lost sight of, with 21 of those 23 points coming from beyond the arc as the Rockets’ perimeter gunners temporarily transformed into flamethrowers, scorching the nets for 7-of-8 shooting from downtown during that decisive stretch.

From that point forward, Houston allowed its superior talent to carry the day despite the occasional lull that usually came as a result of too many turnovers and second chance points allowed. But anytime Orlando threatened, the Rockets had a ready answer in the form of its four-man wrecking crew. Harden (27 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds) and Howard formed the devastating inside-out tandem that had fans salivating and opponents quaking when they came together this summer, while Parsons and Jones provided more than enough to fill in the margins.

The Rockets did what they had to do, dispatching an inferior opponent at home. This was a businesslike performance, taking advantage of an opportunity that could not be wasted. Now come three days off prior to a West Coast road trip that promises to provide a severe test with a back-to-back against Portland and Golden State followed by a Sunday matinee in Sacramento. The road is about to get much harder. Then again, that's when superheroes are supposed to be at their best. 

OBSERVATIONS

- Chandler Parsons shot the ball well tonight but the following point deserves to be reiterated: his passing and playmaking were even better, continuing a season-long trend that has seen him grow as an outstanding offensive facilitator. The third-year forward made great decisions while creating quality looks for his teammates. Here’s a rather eye-opening stat: According to Synergy Sports, Parsons ranks in the league’s 94th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler with Houston averaging 1.149 points per possession in such situations. He ranked in the 76th percentile in that category a year ago, averaging .952 points per possession. That’s clear proof of his growth, not to mention the impact of having the constant threat of a rolling Dwight Howard on the floor.

"I worked on my ball-handling this summer and I think also as you get older and more experience in the league, you're more in control and you go slower and more at your own pace," Parsons said after the game. "I still have some careless turnovers, but I definitely feel more comfortable with the ball in my hands. I play with my height; I can see over defenders which helps me make certain passes. And it's also different having Dwight. Having him screen and roll makes it harder for (defenders) to show and it's a pretty good matchup.

"He demands so much attention to where, even if he's not getting the ball on the roll, he's sucking in the defense so the guy on the weakside is going to be open either via the swing-swing or the direct pass. He's a great guy to run pick-and-roll with, especially in transition when the defense isn't set. That's one of my favorite things to do and it's not even a play call; it's something we can read off each other and do throughout the game."

- James Harden really rose to the challenge of going head-to-head with Arron Afflalo, who's had a terrific start to the season in Orlando. Harden absolutely owned the matchup due in no small part to his high-energy, attentive defensive effort. That’s the second straight strong two-way game for Harden. When he’s locked-in like that he looks like an MVP candidate.

"Playing with the injury kind of slowed me down," Harden admitted after the game. "It's kind of kept me off of my defense a little bit so I've tried to pick it up and show my teammates that I've got their backs.”

Added McHale: "The last two nights James has been fantastic on both sides of the ball. He really did a nice job. He fought Afflalo really hard in the post ... James is strong, really strong and is able to hold guys out of there. He knows how valuable he is to our team on both sides of the ball. He's got to defend. That's a tough spot in this league. He's one of the top offensive guys in the league and he knows how hard it is to guard that spot.”

-  One of the more unstoppable actions in the Houston offense: the high screen-and-roll between Harden and Howard. It seems to end with a Dwight dunk a disproportionate amount of time – just as it did when the two players teamed up on a simple high screen-and-roll late in the second quarter. This, of course, is no surprise since Harden ranks as one of the league’s more deadly practitioners of the pick-and-roll while Howard has been among the game’s preeminent pick-and-roll finishers for years. Per Synergy Sports, Howard came into the game averaging 1.267 points per possession as the big man operating within the screen-and-roll, while shooting a scorching 72.7 percent in such situations.

After the game, Howard informed me that he tells Harden and Parsons to attack the defense every time they turn the corner on one of his screens because he knows the sort of pick-your-poison predicament that places upon opposing defenses. Whether it's a Harden or Parsons rim attack, a pocket pass or alley-oop to Howard, or weakside 3-point attempt, the Rockets are generating quality scoring opportunities galore when Howard teams up with Harden and Parsons (and a healthy Jeremy Lin, of course). 

Howard, by the way, now has corralled at least 18 rebounds in three consecutive games. He came into the night averaging an NBA-high 15.5 rebounds per game against Eastern Conference competition. With the Magic missing injured center Nikola Vucevic tonight, Orlando simply never stood a chance.

- Only appropriate on a night when Houston’s best three players carried the day: that trio went a long way toward sealing the game with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter on a possession when the shot clock was running down and it looked like Houston was going to come away empty-handed. Parsons had the ball on the wing at the 3-point like with a defender draped all over him. Harden, meanwhile, was attempting to post up and having little luck establishing position. But with three seconds left on the shot clock, Harden spun baseline, Parsons immediately found him, and then Harden dished to Howard for a layup to beat the buzzer. That sort of synergy from Houston’s stars pretty much summed up the night.

- Terrence Jones decided to trade in his typically phenomenal opening periods for a spectacular third period tonight. Jones produced 10 points, three boards and two jaw-dropping blocks during a sparkling third quarter that saw the Rockets extend their lead from 14 to 22. The second-year forward delivered his latest double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds while swatting five shots.

- The Rockets’ season-long bugaboo with turnovers and defensive rebounding reared its head again tonight as Houston conceded 23 second-chance points and coughed up the ball 20 times, producing a -13 turnover differential. That the Rockets won – and rather easily at that – despite those issues speaks to just how potentially dominant this team can be. Then again, they’ve had those problems all season long yet still own the fourth-best point differential and net rating in the league.

- Last but certainly not least: The Rockets released some very good news pre-game when Kevin McHale revealed that Jeremy Lin is currently on track to return to game action in time for Houston’s Thursday night primetime showdown with the Portland Trailblazers. There’s no guarantee in that regard, of course, but the mere fact that McHale felt comfortable enough to provide that update speaks volumes. Houston’s head coach also said he believes injured centers Omer Asik and Greg Smith could be on track to return at some point within the next seven days.

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

 (On team's play and rebounding) “Our starting four and five had 35 rebounds between them. James went and got 8 rebounds too. So, that was big. We came out a little bit flat and we played really well for some stretches and then late in the game we got really flat again. I thought for the most part we did a lot of good stuff. We moved the ball well. We got to make sure that when we are making our substitutions that guys come in with higher energy.”

(On the opening stretch of the first quarter) “We just have to play hard. We weren't playing hard. We had bobble balls and bad passes. We weren't moving the ball. We had to get back to doing...making them miss, getting it and going. When we are running and attacking, we are a very good team. It compresses the defense, get open 3's, get the ball inside and when we're walking it around, they just load up and it's too hard for us to score.”

(On James Harden's defensive energy and play) “The last two nights James has been fantastic on both sides of the ball. He really did a nice job. He fought (Arron) Afflalo really hard in the post. I can remember one he (Afflalo) made but that was after seven dribbles where we didn't come over. James is strong. Really strong and is able to hold guys out of there. He knows how valuable he is to our team on both sides of the ball. He's got to defend. That's a tough spot in this league. He's one of the top offensive guys in the league and he knows how hard it is to guard that spot.”

(On Terrence Jones) “Terrence was very good again tonight. Terrence had a great run there for a little bit. There's been a couple of games that I've talked to him about his energy level and about what he has to do for our team and he had five blocks tonight. He can really block shots. Terrence rebounding and shot blocking ability and his ability to make plays and put the ball on the floor, beat people and pass it...he's going to be a very good NBA player for a long time and he's only in his second year.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the difference in play on the last two games vs. the losses before) “I think we have a better mindset and we are more comfortable and executing to the scouting report very well. I think our problem is we haven't fully grasped that we can lose to any team on any given night. We are a young team. We have to understand that we can lose to anybody on any given night or we can beat anybody. When we play a team like Orlando, Phoenix or Utah, we have to go against them with the same energy and same aggressiveness as we do with San Antonio or Golden State. We just have to bring that mindset. We've been really good with the scouting report these last two games. Taking away the 3 point line against Klay Thompson and Steph Curry and then tonight understanding what they are going to do. We've been really effective.”

(On James Harden's defense against Afflalo) “He has potential to be a good defender especially when guys try to post up like a Harrison Barnes or an Arron Afflalo. He's strong so he doesn't give up anything easy down there. That's a good match up for him because when guys try to post up against him he's really strong.”

 JAMES HARDEN

 (On the Rockets 60 rebounds) “We knew if we got out and rebounded the basketball, especially our guards, we can push it in transition. We just made an effort to get in there and just rebound. I think Dwight (Howard) had 20-plus (rebounds).”

(On his defensive effort against Arron Afflalo) “Yes, he's great, coming off of pin downs and iso's (isolation plays) and post ups. So I just wanted to make a conscious effort to stay locked in when I was guarding him.”

(On his defensive assignment change since returning form his injury) “The last couple of games I have been trying to lock in on defensive end. Ever since I came back from injury, the injury...playing with the injury has kind of slowed me down. It's kind of kept me off of my defense a little bit so I've tried to pick it up and show my teammates that I've got their backs.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the win) “I just wanted to get the win tonight. I'm just happy our team came out tonight and settled down and played basketball. In the first quarter, they (Orlando) got off to a good run. We weren't playing the way we needed to play. We settled down and did the right things on defense and got a good win.”

(On the Rockets having a huge first quarter after being down 9-2 to start the game) “We just came out sluggish and weren't contesting shots and we weren't rebounding. We had to pick our energy level up and that's what we did and we got a great win.”

TERRENCE JONES

(On the Rockets turning things around after a sluggish start) “I just think we started getting more stops and we just kind of let the game come to us. I think earlier we had a lot of difficult shots and we just needed to get our pace right and once we got that down I think the game started flowing a little bit better for us. We didn't shoot the ball that well all night but when our defense is going the way that it was going I think it is going to lead to easy offense for us to help us get wins.”

(On his emergence as an effective NBA player) “I'm just trying to play with confidence and do the little things to help us win and make winning plays defensively.”

ORLANDO MAGIC COACH JACQUE VAUGHN

(On the game) “I appreciated the way our guys continued to push it. We had some bunnies early in the game, some good looks around the rim, and the ball just didn’t go in for us. There were different moments in the game, a team can overcome and we had great resolve tonight. With the group we put out there on the floor, we were searching a little bit and found a combination. Every guy that stepped out on the floor gave us something and I can appreciate that.”

(On the Rockets defending Arron Afflalo) “He’s probably enemy number one on a lot of scouting reports. His ability to create shots for himself and others has been good and he’ll continue to be number one for a long time. That’s an adjustment he’ll make and we’ll look at the tape tonight and see how we can be better.”

(On Dwight Howard’s defense inside) “I think overall, I haven’t looked at the shot chart for the game, but I think we had some good looks with him in and out of the game. We did a good job with getting him away from the rim, being able to attack and we had good looks but they just didn’t go in tonight.”

ARRON AFFLALO

(On the game) “We just didn’t have the best shooting night. I thought the effort to get back in the game was pretty good. I guess if anything, we understand what it takes for us to at least compete and stay in games. To me, it’s just another loss. It’s time to get a victory somehow, someway.”

(On the Rockets defending him) “That’s part of trying to get better, but I need to adapt. I can’t use that as an excuse to have a good night or not and create for my teammates. If I want to get better and be and be a better player in this league, I’m going to have to deal with adjustments on defenses that focus in and find a way to get it done. Tonight, I didn’t get it done. So, if the post is not working and the 3-pointer is not working I have to make some adjustments to my game and figure it out.”

JAMEER NELSON

(On the game) “We are not here for moral victories. We are trying to win games and we came up short and we didn’t bring it for certain spurts in the game. We don’t have the type of team that can just turn the switch on and off. We have to play consistent in terms of our effort and our approach to the game. We can’t come out and get a lead and kind of relax. It feels like a little bit of false security. They were missing shots and I felt that we relaxed a little bit. When they delivered their punch, we didn’t do a good job of taking it.  We’re all in this together, we win together and we lose together. There are no moral victories. I’ve been in the league too long to even say that to my team, that we played well and we just didn’t get the job done.”

GLEN DAVIS

(On the game) “We just didn’t play well. We can’t make shots. Its not about the shots, it’s about the defense. Everybody needs to be held accountable in making sure they do what we need to do or it’s going to be a long season. We are down some people, but it’s time to stop using everything as an excuse. Too many excuses, including myself. I’m tired of excuses, it’s time to play basketball or it’s going to be a long (blank) season.”

 (On defending Dwight Howard) “I can play Dwight. I know that if anybody in the league can play Dwight, I can play him. It doesn’t matter, he still had 20 (points) and 20 (rebounds).”

NOTES

The Rockets registered a crowd of 16,407 for tonight’s game, snapping Houston’s streak of consecutive sellouts to start the season at 12 in a row.

Houston handed the Magic a 98-88 setback tonight, giving the Rockets three straight wins over Orlando.

The Rockets limited the Magic to just 88 points on 32-of-93 (.344) shooting, which comes on the heels of holding the Warriors to 83 points on 27-of-76 (.355) from the field vs. Golden State (12/6/13).

Houston set its season high in rebounds tonight by outrebounding the Magic by a 60-43 (+17) count tonight, which gave the Rockets 50-plus rebounds in three consecutive games. It also marked Houston’s first 60-rebound game since grabbing 60 boards back in 2009-10 at the L.A. Lakers (11/15/09). The Rockets entered this outing having taken the battle of the boards by a 54-40 (+14) edge vs. Phoenix (12/4/13) and a 52-43 (+9) mark vs. Golden State (12/6/13).

The Rockets have now outscored their opponents a combined 59-30 in the first quarter of the last two games.

Houston swatted away 10 Magic shots tonight, marking its fourth double-digit block game of the season.

The Rockets had three players with a double-double for the first time since 4/3/13 at Sacramento – Omer Asik (19 points, 10 rebounds), Jeremy Lin (15 points, 10 assists), Terrence Jones (14 points, 12 rebounds)

James Harden finished with 27 points (7-17 FG, 10-11 FT), a season-high-tying 10 assists and eight boards tonight. Harden now owns seven 20-point, 10-assist games in his career (Rockets record: 7-0).

Dwight Howard, who is celebrating his 28th birthday today, posted 20 points (6-12 FG, 8-14 FT), 22 rebounds (8 offensive), three assists, three blocks and two steals tonight. He becomes the first Rockets player to post a 20-20 game since Luis Scola on 3/6/10 at Minnesota (25 points, 21 rebounds). Howard also becomes the first Rockets players since Ralph Sampson in 1985-86 to pull down 18 or more rebounds in three consecutive games.

Terrence Jones posted 16 points (6-13 FG, 2-4 3FG), 13 rebounds, five blocks and two steals tonight. Jones, who recorded 16 points (7-12 FG), 10 rebounds, three steals and three blocks vs. Golden State (12/6/13), posted the first consecutive double-doubles of his career. He came up just one block shy of his career-high six blocks last season at Phoenix (4/15/13).

Chandler Parsons added 18 points (7-12 FG, 3-6 3FG) tonight. Parsons recently reached double-figuring scoring in a career-high-tying 13 consecutive games (11/7/13-11/30/13).

Glen Davis led five Magic players in double-figure scoring with 18 points (8-18 FG) and six rebounds tonight. Davis has now scored in double figures five times this season.

Arron Afflalo recorded 16 points (6-17 FG) and led the team with a season-high-tying nine boards tonight. Afflalo has scored in double figures 19 times on the season, which lead all Magic players.