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Open thread: Regular season game 33

The essentials:
Rockets (17-17) at Wizards (17-15)
7 p.m.
Verizon Center
NBA TV! (and CSN, I presume)

Last year:
November 22: Rockets 86, Wizards 82
December 8: Rockets 114, Wizards 109

Notable Rockets numbers this season:
15th in expected winning percentage (.528).
17th in pace factor (90 possessions per game).
19th in offensive efficiency/offensive rating (104.9)
3rd in defensive efficiency/defensive rating (104.1).

Key links (drop any others in the comments)
The Dream Shake.
Dream Shake game preview.
Hoops Blogging blog preview.
Butler, Jamison on Hollinger's All-Star team.
Ivan Carter on the locker room rearrangement
Carnival of the NBA
Dwyer on Defense
True Hoop on trading T-Mac.
Where have you been, DC Optimist?.

Starting lineups:
PG: Rafer Alston
SG: Luther Head
SF: Shane Battier
PF: Chuck Hayes
C: Yao Ming

PG: Antonio Daniels
SG: DeShawn Stevenson
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Antawn Jamison
C: Brendan Haywood

Tonight's lines
Rockets at Wizards: Wizards by 2.5.
Over/Under on Big 2 scoring: 44 points.

Let's get to it.

Forced relocation: I find this whole locker room relocation story quite fascinating, mostly because I think it's a wonderful ploy by the veterans on this team to get through to the young guys without messing too much with their psyche.  Basically, each of the youngsters' lockers were moved next to a comparable veteran (Nick Young and Caron Butler, Dominic McGuire and Antawn Jamison, Andray Blatche and Brendan Haywood), and yesterday, they went through extra practice.  The official reason is so the locker room can become more serious before games, but I doubt it's much more than a wake up call to them to play better.  

Anyway, the obvious question is, what about Gil?  Isn't he a bit eccentric for this new "serious" locker room.  I found DeShawn's quote from Ivan's blog entry linked above interesting.  

"Only one person can do that, laughing and joking, and that's Gilbert Arenas. He scores 30 points a night so there's not too much you can say to him. When these young guys start doing that, they can act however they want but for now, we need it to be more serious around here. We keep trying to tell them but they keep laughing and joking so super-vet over there (Antawn) is going to do something about it. We gotta win basketball games."

That kind of underscores that this isn't really about a serious locker room at all.  It's all about production, and the young guys haven't been providing much recently.  I don't necessarily see a direct cause/effect relationship between a joking locker room and the poor recent play of Young, Blatche, and McGuire, especially because many of them were playing well even while clowning around earlier in the season.  I think Young has hit a bit of a wall, and hasn't been able to play both ends, while Blatche is now struggling to adjust to teams that have developed ways of defending him.  Simply getting serious isn't going to solve those problems, but I do like the move, simply because it lets the kids know that they matter enough to this team to be singled out.  

So for those worried about a swagless Wizards locker room, fear not.  If everyone is playing well, it'll come back.  

Speaking of Gilbert...:  As a Wizards blogger, I guess I'm obligated to talk about his recent comments about not coming back if the team isn't playing well.  Honestly, it's much ado about nothing at this point.  I'm of the opinion (as many here know) that many people (print journalists and bloggers alike) make too big a deal out of Gilbert's comments.  Ivan basically said he doubts Arenas will sit out for the rest of the season, because he needs basketball just as much as basketball needs him, if not more, and I agree with him.  All Arenas was saying is that he wants to be sure he's fully recovered before returning, and if he's not fully recovered when he expects to be, then he'd consider sitting.  The first five games of the season, when he, and the rest of the team struggled, are clearly on his mind.  So long as the team continues to play like it is now, he'll come back.  

Speaking of, I really, really hope he comes back to play, simply because we need some evidence of how Gilbert plays with his new emerged supporting cast.  This is the first time we've seen some of the supporting players perform as we think they can, so it's essential for the future of the franchise to get as much information as possible on how Gilbert plays with better players.  I'm more concerned about that, frankly, than a playoff push.

Houston slumping: Coming into the season, many (including me) felt Houston would be among the most improved teams in the West, thanks to all their new additions and new coach Rick Adelman.  Instead, they're 17-17, and they've been better without Tracy McGrady than with him, at least in this tiny sample size.  

Identifying the problem with this team is like asking someone about which religion is closest to truth.  There are tons of theories, and very few concrete answers.  You could point to Tracy McGrady, or you could make the argument that you simply can't surround T-Mac and Yao with offensive black holes like Rafer Alston and Chuck Hayes.  But the more salient argument, to me, is the disappointing head coaching job of Rick Adelman.  Every time I watch this team, their offense looks like the same simplistic one of the past few years, and their defense isn't playing with the same physicality of years past.  Worse yet, every time the camera pans to Adelman, it looks like he's doing nothing, instead of actually coaching his team.  And yes, I'm probably looking too much into that.

Adelman has the players, but he continually insists on playing the bad offensive players before the good defensive ones.  There's no reason why Luis Scola is on the bench, Shane Battier is logging some time at power forward, and Rafer Alston is playing 33 minutes a game.  Offensively, they're about 4 points worse per 100 possessions than last year, and only Yao and T-Mac have PERs above 15.  Methinks it's time for a rotation change in Houston.

Playoffs?  We talking about playoffs: Jvflail has a nice diary about premature playoff speculation.  It's never too early to think about it.

Keys to the game: Without McGrady, expect Houston to utilize Yao Ming offensively.  Yao has still been very productive, but he's struggled a bit this year adjusting to his new surrounding pieces.  His PER is down by nearly three and a half points, his shooting percentages are down, and he's using fewer possessions.  Brendan Haywood is an excellent post defender, but I'd still double Yao at every touch, especially when Chuck Hayes is playing.  Force the other guys to beat us.  

The other key is the bench play.  Even with all of Houston's struggles, they can still trot out a quality bench, with Scola, Bonzi Wells, the struggling Mike James, and the emerging Aaron Brooks.  Brooks, in particular, is someone I'm worried about.  He dropped 22 off the bench against the Knicks Saturday night, and has seen his playing time increase.  He's exactly the small guard that traditionally gives our defense fits, so it's important that we cut off his penetration and force him into tough jump shots.  

This is a winnable game: Really, it is.  Eddie Jordan put Houston in the same class as Boston, but that was simply nice gamesmanship on his part.  Houston's not the defensive team they once were, and offensively, it's not so hard to stop them.  Their best player (Yao) just happens to coincide with our best defender (Haywood), and T-Mac, who burned the Wizards in both meetings last year, isn't playing.  I see no reason why we shouldn't win this game.

This is an open game thread, so sex Mutumbo here.  (Not literally, please).