As sports fans, we can never leave well enough alone. We’re always in search of the next something. The next Jordan, Magic, Bird, whomever. For whatever reason, we never allow the past, present or future to simply stand on its own. It’s absurd.
And yet… one thought kept racing around my mind while watching the Rockets roll to a 110-97 victory over Chicago Sunday night: Shane Battier is the next Bruce Bowen. Think about it. Like the Spurs’ stopper, Battier always guards the opponent’s best perimeter player, and, more often than not, he aces that assignment. He absolutely adores the corner trey, Bowen’s bread-and-butter shot. And while it’s safe to assume he’ll never acquire Bowen’s “dirty” label, Battier’s got more than a few tricks up his sleeve; just watch the way his hand always darts right in front of a jump-shooter’s eyes the moment the ball is about to be released.
Bowen and Battier are the ultimate glue guys. They don’t win games of one-on-one, but they do help their teams hang banners. Fans recognize that; at least they usually do. When the Rockets are winning, the Duke product is a pretty popular dude. Everyone appreciates his hustle and praises him for all the little things he does that don’t show up in boxscores. But during the bad times, well, get ready to be pummeled by an onslaught of Rudy Gay references.
To be sure, the Battier-Gay debate isn’t ending anytime soon. Both sides have merit. But at least one point should elicit no argument: Battier is a perfect fit for this Rockets team.
“I was brought here because of T-Mac and Yao,” says Battier. “You have to surround them with guys who do two things: defend and knock down shots. That’s what I’ve made my career doing, that’s what they told me they wanted when I got here, so that’s my bread and butter on this team. I think I do a pretty decent job of both, so I just try to make plays that help this team win games.”
And even if the fans don’t always notice, his teammates do.
“He’s focused,” explains Rafer Alston. “That’s one thing about him: His concentration level throughout a 48 minute game is one of the best I’ve been around. He loves his role and he takes on the challenge every night. You gotta love players who you can give them a role like that and they’ll just take on the challenge.”
Right now, there’s no challenge Battier and the Rockets can’t handle. Their winning streak stands at 12 and counting. Their defense is top-notch, and ball-movement superb. Their outside shots are falling. They even seem to have finally figured out the art of closing games; winning 7 of their last 8 contests by eight points or more.
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And yet, Houston continues to fly just beneath the national radar. While teams like L.A., Dallas and Phoenix dominate the headlines, Clutch City draws little more than a few curious looks and raised eyebrows. Perhaps it’s because the Rockets remain precariously perched in the Western Conference’s 7th seed. More likely it’s because of the playoff demons which can’t be exorcized until the spring.
“They just pick apart what we aren’t and what we don’t have,” says Battier matter-of-factly. “And that’s fine. We’re not looking for any national credit here. We know we’re a good team. We know we’re a solid team. We know we’re continually improving and that’s the most important thing. We don’t want to play our best basketball now. We want to play our best basketball in April.”
If the Rockets can do that, the recognition will come. For Houston.
And for Battier. - Jason Friedman