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Rockets Big Men Answer McHale’s Challenge In Win Over Utah

By TERRANCE HARRIS, SportsRadio 610
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(credit: Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

(credit: Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

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HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – It’s obvious Rockets coach Kevin McHale is still trying to figure out all the right buttons to push with his new team.

McHale was certainly searching for ways to get the attention of his post players following the horrendous showing they had against Minnesota on Friday night. There was the marathon three-hour film-practice session Saturday and for minute prior to Sunday’s game Utah it looked like center Sam Dalembert’s starting spot had become a casualty of the Friday night fiasco.

In a not so odd way, it all blended together Sunday to give the Rockets the boost they needed to recover from a deflating loss and defeat the Jazz 101-85 at Toyota Center. Much of the credit belongs to the smoothing 3-point shooting stroke of Kyle Lowery (game-high 32 poitns on 7 of 8 shooting from 3-point range)and the heads up play of Luis Scola (26 points), but the defense applied on the Jazz’s big men was just as critical.

Center and leading scorer Al Jefferson and power forward Paul Millsap both got their points, but they earned each and every one of their combined 18 baskets unlike Kevin Love and Nikola Peckovic on Friday night.

Second-year forward Patrick Patterson, a surprise insertion into the starting lineup after Dalembert showed up for pre-game shoot around, drew the initially assignment to the much more stout Jefferson and he did so-so.  Recently acquired Greg Smith, fresh off the plane from D-League assignment, even had a little bit of success before the duty of slowing Jefferson.

Yes, it took three but when it was over Jefferson had not done nearly as much damage in the critical moments Pekovic had managed to do in a similar pick-and-roll offense.

McHale isn’t so unrealistic to expect perfection from his collection of journeymen big fellas, he just wants to see effort and desire. He received plenty of both Sunday night.

“We did a pretty nice job,” McHale said of the defense in the paint. “They were in tuned, they practiced really hard yesterday. They were in tuned. That’s what we’ve got to be.

“We can’t be out of tune and we can’t be walking around out there and not really be focused on what we’ve got to do. We’re not a team that can just show up in the arena and win. We’ve got to show up with a purpose and be ready to go and compete.”

The difference Sunday is the Rockets bigs put bodies on Jefferson and also reserve Enes Kanter and contested every shot. Scola also did a decent job on Millsap, though the assignment may have been tougher because of Millsap’s relentless desire to post up in the paint.

Jefferson ended up with 23 points but it came on 10 of 20 shooting in the paint, while Millsap connected on 8 of 16 from the field for his 22 points. That was a vast improvement from the 63 points Love and Pekovic combined to score Friday.

The Rockets success came as result of their grittiness. Dalembert contested and changed shots in the paint throughout the second half while Smith showed some heart inside with four blocked shots in his first game as the replacement for Jordan Hill, who will be out four games due to an injured right knee.

In many ways it seemed like the Rockets took personal what happened Friday and vowed it wouldn’t happen again.

“It was a different challenge,” said Dalembert, who had four points, two blocked shots and five rebounds while also picking up five fouls in 17:52. “The last time one of the guys could shoot 3s. Same thing, Jefferson started to get going a little bit but in the second half we had to really do something quick to slow him down before he got going again.”

It was certainly the performance Dalembert needed after he looked out of sorts and lacked aggression in making Pekovic appear to be an All-Star. Dalembert started out slow when he came off the bench for the first time behind Smith by the second half he was in a groove and making every shot difficult for Jefferson.

“He came in and he was stiff, but I tell you what we needed him against them,” McHale said.  “Al made a lot of tough shots but we needed (Dalembert’s) length. He did a tremendous job. I thought Sam being in there toward the end was key, he blocked shots and affected things and got rebounds and got the game under control in the paint. If you can control that area of the game then you can do pretty well.”

But the real test will come Monday night when the Rockets face another team with rolling big men who are capable scoring big points in the paint when Memphis rolls into Toyota Center. The hope is Sunday’s game was a sign of real growth from Friday and not just a flash.

“It was good for everybody,” McHale said of Sunday’s performance. “No one felt good about that Friday night game. It left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. We wanted to get that out.

“We got the same kind of game coming up tomorrow night. It should be a dog fight, street fight.”

Contact Terrance Harris at terrancefharris@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Terranceharris

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