In my season preview for the Houston Rockets, I cited the current portion of the season as the "make or break stretch" for the team -- a six-game road trip against a bunch of pretty-good-but-not-great teams followed by a six-game homestand against mostly good teams.
And once the season started, and the Rockets evolved into a fairly predictable group, essentially knocking off bad teams and struggling against good teams, this current road trip looked even a little more daunting.
But don't look now, after losing to Minnesota in the first game of the road swing (the infamous "Kevin Love Using Luis Scola's Face As Welcome Mat" game), the Rockets have won three in a row and the last two have been in a highly improbable fashion.
When the Rockets knocked off Portland 103-96 on Wednesday night (only the Blazers' third loss all season at home, by the way), head coach Kevin McHale decided to leave his bench in during crucial points of the game and the gamble paid off as the five off the pine for the Rockets scored 66 points.
At the time, it was thought that the extensive use of the reserves was a luxury that would allow McHale's starters an extra night of rest with a game against the Phoenix Suns looming the next night, but the fact of the matter is the Rockets' second five was actually outplaying their first five.
Who knew it would happen two nights in a row?
Last night, the Rockets beat the Suns in Phoenix, and the bench not only chipped in 57 points, but the five reserves played more total minutes than the five starters. On top of that, when the Rockets' ten-point halftime lead had evaporated and turned into a seven-point deficit in about eight minutes, it was McHale's backups that put out the fire, regained the lead and cruised home to another seven-point win, 96-89.
Some fun facts from the two games:
-- In both games, all five Rockets starters had negative "+/-" scores, and all of the reserves had positive "+/-" scores. (For the truly statistically challenged, "+/-" is the team's scoring margin when that player is on the floor. Negative is bad, positive is good.)
-- In the Phoenix game, all five starters had double-digit negative "+/-" scores, and all five reserves had double-digit positive "+/-" scores, the lowest of which was Jordan Hill's +17. (Double-digit negative is really bad, double-digit positive is really good.)
-- Backup point guard Goran Dragic had a +27 rating in 29 minutes in the Phoenix game, which statistically is practically impossible to do. This is the virtual equivalent of sitting at a $25 blackjack table for a half hour and walking away with like two grand.
-- Starting shooting guard Kevin Martin played a TOTAL of 28 minutes and took a TOTAL of seven shots (scoring six points) in both games. COMBINED. (I wanted to find out the last time Kevin Martin took seven shots in two games, but I didn't have time. I'm guessing it was probably his second year in the league, 2005-06, when he was still a bench player.)
-- The Rockets' reserves (Patterson, Budinger, Hill, Dragic, Lee) make a combined total of $10,033,105 this season. Kevin Martin makes $12,019,840 himself.
-- The Rockets' bench had a combined assist/turnover ratio of 30/13 over the two games. The starters' ratio was 22/20.
-- The Rockets' bench shot 57 percent from three-point range. The starters shot 31 percent.
Now, the Rockets have a couple days off so everyone will get to rest their legs until Sunday when they take on the Golden State Warriors. It should be fascinating to see how McHale uses the bench going forward. Clearly, he's not afraid to lean on them at the expense of his starters' minutes (and egos) if the starters aren't getting the job done.
So in the midst of the season's toughest stretch of schedule, the Rockets woke up this morning 16-11 in fourth place in the Western Conference, and they woke up a much deeper team than they were two days ago.
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A weird NBA season keeps getting weirder.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.