Rockets-Suns: Brooks, Lowry Bring Small Ball to Houston
If the Rockets needed any additional evidence to the potential success of a two point-guard system, they only needed to look on the other end of the court on Friday night at Toyota Center.
The Phoenix Suns (34-28) have been the model of up-tempo basketball in recent years, routinely playing small guards Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa together to wreak havoc on opposing defenses with electrifying speed and dribble penetration ability.
But three times in the past five games, the Rockets (40-23) have utilized their own version of the Suns offense, playing young, speedy point guards Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry together in an effort to push the tempo and get easier baskets in transition.
And on Friday, Brooks and his new, speedier Rockets worked that offensive gameplan to perfection, beating the Suns at their own high-octane game in a 116-112 victory in a matchup of playoff contenders.
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"It feels good," Brooks said. "I think as a team we just really needed this victory. It was a big game. I didn't want [Nash] just to score on me. I wanted him to play defense."
To that end, Brooks sealed Nash and the Suns' fate with a game-winning layup with 7.3 seconds left, scooping a right-handed shot under the outstretched arms of Shaquille O'Neal.
"We were in love with Aaron when he came out in the draft and the Rockets took him right ahead of us," Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. "He's a terrific player. I like his toughness and that he can drive to the basket and is a great outside shooter."
The majority of the hype, of course, surrounded the battle of the bigs -- Yao Ming and Shaq. And that matchup lived up to the hype, with Yao generally outplaying Shaq to collect 15 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
But that matchup has been done many times before.
The novelty Friday night was the combined use of Brooks and Lowry, and Brooks stole the show with his career-high 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting, 4-of-7 from behind the arc.
"He's unbelievable," Lowry said of Brooks. "I think we're very comfortable together. He's playing very well right now and he's a good scorer. He made a game-winning shot tonight and you just have to tip your hat to him."
"He's growing," forward Shane Battier added, referring to Brooks. "He's going through growing pains, both good and bad. When he plays like tonight and he's got confidence, he's going to do big things in this league."
Over the years, the Rockets have routinely struggled with up-tempo offenses, due largely to the slow-footed Yao's inability to play particularly well in a transition game.
But the Suns have shown it's possible to successfully mix elements of a transition game with a dominant center in the half-court. For Phoenix, it starts with the elite athleticism of Nash and Barbosa, and at least for one night, the Rockets showed the ability to replicate that style with two guards of their own.
When Barbosa torched Von Wafer and the Rockets' normal two-guard rotation with nine points off the bench in his first seven minutes, Houston coach Rick Adelman matched speed with speed, and the results were immediate.
With Brooks and Lowry each in the lineup, the Rockets outscored Phoenix 21-11 in a span of almost seven minutes to start the second quarter, putting a cushion between themselves and the Suns that would last for nearly the duration of the game.
"Barbosa is a real problem," Adelman said. "He's really quick and very active and makes you adjust what you do. [Brooks and Lowry] certainly can play together."
For the game, the Rockets outscored the Suns by 11 in the approximately 13 minutes the two point guards played together.
"You can do that in this league," Gentry said of playing two point guards. "You have to put the defense on their heels. Those guys can still put a lot of pressure on you. They're very much in the attack mode.
"When Yao is out, and you have Carl Landry and Wafer and Brooks and Lowry, I think they really push the ball. I think it's great that they have the ability to give you two different mentalities. That makes it really tough to play against this team."
Landry was often the beneficiary of the quick dribble penetration of Brooks and Lowry, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting. Lowry added six points and three assists in his 22-plus minutes off the bench.
When the Rockets use the dual-point lineup, it often means a shift to shooting guard for Brooks, a naturally gifted scorer who played off the ball in college at Oregon. While he says he relishes the leadership role the point guard position requires, he's truly at home when he's in his attacking mindset.
"I'm comfortable playing anywhere," Brooks said. "When I'm off the ball, I can relax, I don't have to bring the ball up. I can shoot and come off screens. Either way, I'm creating stuff for other people. It works. We may be small, but they have to contain us on the other end."
Defensively, the 6-foot Brooks is at an obvious disadvantage. But as the Suns can attest, he often makes up for his defensive shortcomings with his speed on offense.
"You can't win if you don't score," Gentry said. "You have to make the game up-tempo. Although they're undersized when they do that, we always say that other teams have to guard us on the offensive end of the floor [when the Suns go small], and we'll take our chances helping and doing the best job we can defensively and keeping the pressure on offensively."
It's not something the Rockets can do with regularity, of course. Most teams are too large and too physical to play that style on a consistent basis. But it's potentially a key boost of versatility to a Rockets' team that's been very one-dimensional with a strict half-court offense during the Yao era.
"It gives us speed," forward Shane Battier said of the Lowry and Brooks combination. "We can really get out and push the ball and get some easy buckets in transitions. We're not big when that happens, but we're fast and it opens things up for everyone else."
Down the stretch on Friday, Brooks didn't need to create for everyone else. He created for himself, and against a talented Phoenix squad, that was enough.
"[Brooks] was great," said Nash, who came into the Rockets' locker room after the game to congratulate Yao. "He killed us and made a couple of big plays at the end of the game. He played tremendous.
"Overall, he's really turned into a terrific guard and I think the Rockets are going to have a guy for a long time who can really handle this [point guard] position."