Brooks Helps Rockets Stay Afloat Through Wave of Injuries

Beverley's return pushes the fashionable Brooks further down the Houston bench.
Patrick Beverley returned to the starting lineup in Monday night's 126-113 win over the tough Portland Trail Blazers, guiding the Rockets with 17 points and three assists in 29 minutes. Despite missing a month with a broken hand, the Rockets' defensive-minded floor general showed no ill effects.

It was a celebration at Toyota Center, where the crowd loves Beverley for his high energy and relentless defensive pressure. It was also a rare chance for the injury-riddled Rockets to look at their true potential, assuming their core players can finally stay healthy for an extended period.

"I don't know how much Patrick and Jeremy [Lin] have even played together," said head coach Kevin McHale. "I know it hasn't been a lot."

With Beverley back in the lineup, sixth-year veteran point guard Aaron Brooks returned to his usual third-string role. It's often a thankless job that can come without minutes (he played 31 seconds on Monday), and as a free agent last July, Brooks had opportunities to leave for more playing time. But Brooks unexpectedly chose to stay in Houston, citing familiarity with the club that drafted him in 2007 and an appreciation for the city.

"My kids had moved around a lot," said Brooks, who outside of his time in Houston had stints with the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and even a season in China.

"It's good to be somewhere they're familiar with. I'm just comfortable here and happy."

At the time, it was mostly hailed as a feel-good signing -- one that would provide depth, leadership and continuity, but one that probably wasn't essential to the team's ultimate success, given the presence of two players ahead of him on the depth chart.

The past seven weeks, however, have proven that signing to be quite astute.

"We're not caught off guard by anything Aaron can do, because he's been doing it for a long time," said Chandler Parsons, the team's starting small forward and in his third season, the longest consecutively tenured player on the always-changing Houston roster. "He's just been solid for us. He's a guy with the speed to break down defenses and the ability to make a lot of shots all over the floor.

"But it doesn't stop now [with Beverley's return]. "He's got to continue to do that, with guys going out with injuries and guys getting in foul trouble. He has to stay ready."

Injury bug became contagious in November and December

It seemed innocuous at the time. On the night before Thanksgiving, Lin sprinted out in transition and accidentally bumped knees with Atlanta's Paul Millsap in the opening moments, limping off to the locker room with what appeared to be a minor bone bruise.

Little did the Rockets know, it was only the beginning of what would soon become an avalanche of injuries to the all-important point guard position.

Lin returned two weeks later, but his conditioning was admittedly subpar. In his second game back, a road win at Golden State on December 13, Lin collided with Andrew Bogut on a screen -- jarring his back and causing spasms that would keep him out another ten days.

By December 21, Lin was within a game of his return. But on that night in Detroit, Beverley broke his hand, an injury that would keep him out for a month.

Neither Lin nor Beverley is an elite player. But each player's strengths (Beverley's defense and steady ballhandling, Lin's isolation play and offensive creativity) seem to beautifully offset the other's weaknesses. McHale said in October that it felt as if the Rockets essentially had two starting point guards.

But beginning with Lin's pre-Thanksgiving injury, the Rockets hit a stretch in which 25 of their next 27 games would be played without at least one of Beverley and Lin. For a title-contending team that thrives on pushing the pace, it could have meant disaster.

Enter the speedy Brooks, who unexpectedly sparked the Rockets over the past two months in much the same manner as he did during his first stint with the team. Back in 2009, the Rockets dealt Rafer Alston at the February trade deadline, thrusting an inexperienced Brooks into the starting lineup in only his second season. From there, he guided the Rockets to their only playoff series win of the past 16 years.

Aaron Brooks was drafted by the Rockets way back in June 2007.
Winning percentage stays consistent

While Brooks didn't quite play starting minutes in his recent rotation stint, his impact was undeniable. The team's overall performance in those 25 games (which also included three James Harden absences), remarkably, wasn't all that different from their usual output. The Rockets went 16-9 over that span for a 64 percent winning clip -- nearly even with their season-long record (28-15, or 65.1 percent).

They scored 102.4 points per game on average and allowed 99.5/game over that stretch, giving them a plus-2.9 margin not far removed from their plus-3.6 mark for the entire season.

Brooks played in 24 of those 25 games (missing one due to his own injury). He tallied 20 or more minutes in 13 of 24 outings, and scored ten or more points in 11 of the 24 games.

"He did a tremendous job," said McHale. "He's come out and made big shots in big games.

"When we talked at the beginning of the year, I said: 'Aaron, you're going to be one sprained ankle away from playing a lot.' And then in the first game, Patrick Beverley had a rib issue. Aaron looked at me and said, 'That didn't take long.' I said, 'No, it sure didn't.'

"He's been in and out of the lineup ever since, because if it wasn't Patrick out, it was Jeremy out."

Brooks's contributions start with his three-point stroke, which has brought life to an offense that thrives on the long ball. With Dwight Howard commanding attention inside and athletic wings creating transition mismatches, the Rockets find themselves frequently open on the perimeter and attempt the most 3s in the NBA at 26.0 per game.

Despite the high volume, though, they rank just 24th in accuracy at 34.6 percent. With the league average at nearly 36 percent, the Rockets have only two shooters above that mark: Chandler Parsons, at 38.2 percent, and Brooks at a blistering 41 percent (including 42 percent in January).

Brooks has also, however, brought unexpected contributions to the defensive end. Though he is generously listed at 6-foot-0 and 160 pounds, Brooks has been a pest to opposing point guards and also knows how to read passing lanes. He averaged 0.75 steals/game in his 20 minutes -- not far off the 1.3/game average in 31 minutes from Beverley, long known as a great defensive playmaker.

Brooks's role going forward

At the moment, Brooks is without a defined role. When Beverley, Lin and Harden are all healthy, the vast majority of the 96 backcourt minutes for Houston will likely be split among those three players.

Brooks will still have spot minutes that could be extended during unexpected foul trouble, or longer trial runs when the team is in a shooting slump. But they may not be consistent.

That's fine for Brooks, though, who understood the roster composition when he signed a new contract this past July. And it's even better for general manager Daryl Morey and the Rockets, who will enter the February trade deadline period with immense flexibility.

Morey said last week that the Rockets are still searching for the "third-best player on a championship team" to pair with Harden and Howard. It could come from within, should the likes of Parsons, Lin or Terrence Jones improve into a player of that caliber

But it appears more likely for that elusive third star to come from outside the organization, either via trade or in an upcoming free agency period.

If it's the former, the recent play of Brooks could give the front office confidence to make a more daring move. The Rockets found out in December that Omer Asik, now perpetually disgruntled after being benched upon Howard's arrival, didn't command the market value they had hoped. Perhaps now Asik can be paired with Lin, or even Beverley, in larger trade proposals before the February 20 deadline.

Even if they stay the course, though, Brooks's presence should help McHale and Morey sleep easier. Remember, Lin has had injury issues throughout his young career. That included last postseason, when Lin missed three of six first-round games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in late April and early May.

Brooks, who only began his second stint with the Rockets in March, was a newcomer to McHale's team and hadn't had much practice time. Most viewed him as merely an "emergency insurance" option. But Brooks replaced Lin in the rotation for those three games and again showed his value, helping the Rockets win twice and extend the series.

No matter the plan, the Rockets suddenly find themselves with more depth than expected at arguably the most crucial position. For a franchise that has seen numerous seasons over the past decade-plus torpedoed by injuries and/or a lack of flexibility, hidden gems like Brooks are always a welcome sight.

"To have a former Most Improved Player and 19 points per game scorer just waiting on your bench, it's quite a luxury to have," said Parsons, who led the Rockets on Monday night with 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. "He's been absolutely huge for us."

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