(Note: This is written by Ben DuBose. We're working on that byline glitch, honest.)
At least for one night, the Rockets answered their only remaining defensive questions in a resounding way.
Since dealing incumbent point guard Rafer Alston at the February trade deadline, skeptics have wondered if the Rockets could defend at the point with diminutive 6-footers Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry. On Monday night at Toyota Center, New Orleans (49-32) offered quite a challenge with Chris Paul.
But after a sluggish start, the Rockets (53-28) virtually shut down the MVP candidate, limiting him to nine points and seven assists in a dominating defensive performance while cruising to an 86-66 win. It's the fewest points New Orleans has scored all season.
"All the things they said about our defense were false," forward Shane Battier told Hair Balls. "Kyle [Lowry] especially can be a terrific defender, and we're playing better defense as a team since the trade. We like that calling card going to the playoffs."
The Rockets, now winners of five straight, have had their struggles with penetrating point guards in the past two months. Paul, for example, scored 29 points and dished out 11 assists in a March 16 meeting with the Rockets.
But Monday's lockdown performance should give Houston confidence heading to the postseason. After Paul spent the first quarter collapsing the defense and finding teammates uncovered inside, the Rockets closed off the lane and blanketed his outside shooters, limiting him to five points and two assists for the final three quarters.
"They were coming off a tough game playing against Dallas, and I wanted to pressure [Paul] a little bit because I knew he would be tired," Brooks said. "I wanted to get after him a little early in the game and hopefully they would run out of energy.
From the nine-minute mark of the second quarter, the Rockets made that happen by putting on a defensive clinic, blowing open the game with a 28-4 run that lasted until the nine-minute mark of the third quarter. The Rockets stretched the run to 44-11 at one point, absolutely embarrassing one of the Western Conference's elite teams.
We just wanted to try to keep [Paul] out of the lane," guard Von Wafer said. "You know he wreaks havoc. We needed to contain him and limit his options with the outside shots and we really did a good job."
Lowry and Brooks, of course, didn't do the job alone. Ron Artest spent time on Paul as well, in addition to swarming Peja Stojakovic and holding the Hornets' star shooter to two points on 1-of-7 shooting. Likewise, Battier played lockdown defense against Rasual Butler, limiting him to two points on 1-of-9 shooting. Most importantly, Yao Ming and Luis Scola shut down the lane and prevented Paul from driving to the basket.
In his first game back since missing a game with a sore right foot, Yao scored 22 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots, all while providing a massive defensive presence inside.
"For us to advance far in the playoffs, Yao has to be at his best defensively," Battier said. "He needs to be active, he needs to be able to move, and he needs to be able to play people without fouling because we need him in the game.
"We know every close game, there's no secret. Teams are going to put Yao in the pick and roll and attack him over and over. It's on him to meet that challenge."
To complement Yao on the interior, Scola added 15 rebounds. Rockets head coach Rick Adelman is known historically for his offensive schemes, but he, too, showed his admiration for defense on Monday night. In the first half, Artest struggled mightily at the offensive end on 1-of-9 shooting, while Wafer electrified the team and the Toyota Center crowd with nine points off the bench on 4-of-6 shooting. But to close out the final four minutes of the first half, Adelman pulled Wafer for the cold-shooting Artest. The reason? Defensive intensity.
"He's really got to mentally get into the game at the other end," Adelman said of Wafer. "Because when the playoffs come, we can't afford to take Shane out or take Ron out and to only play one end. [Wafer] is a young player who sometimes doesn't learn that, and if he can give us the energy at both ends of the court, than we'll have something there."
The move, like nearly everything else on Monday after the first quarter, worked brilliantly.
Despite Artest's off-night on offense, the Rockets continued their stellar defensive surge, limiting the dynamic Hornets to 11 points in 21-plus game minutes. "I'm just really proud of the team and the way they approached this game," Adelman said. "Our guys took advantage of it [of New Orleans' lack of energy] and grabbed the momentum."
Of course, one game does not a season make. The Rockets will certainly be tested by tough point guards in the playoffs, which open this weekend. More immediately, they'll face Jason Kidd in the regular season finale on Wednesday night in Dallas.
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Win and the Rockets will win the Southwest Division, have home court in the first round of the playoffs and finish as high as No. 2 in the Western Conference standings. Lose, and risk falling to No. 5 and not even having home court.
But for a team already stacked with defensive aces like Artest and Battier, the potential of similar contributions from other spots has given them a swagger heading into that game. "If they want to post Aaron or go to the rim, pushing the inside action works in our favor because we have Dikembe [Mutombo] and Yao Ming as shot-blockers," Artest said. "If somebody wants to come in there, they're welcome to."
For a slideshow of last night's game, click here.
For real-time Rockets talk, go to twitter.com/BenDuBose