Houston, Hot and Cold in Triple Overtime


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Aaron Brooks in the lane, working against all the Timberwolves.

24 hours ago, nobody would have picked Minnesota at Houston as the game of the night, but that's why they play the games! You never know what's going to happen, and that one turned into a triple overtime thriller, which the home team won by a millimeter.

The play of the night, in case you haven't seen it already, came at the end of regulation when Corey Brewer -- a player whose 3-point shooting stats are marred by the fact that he throws up half-court buzzer-beaters every chance he gets -- showed why every player should send up prayers:

Despite that make, this was really a story of misses.

The Timberwolves, the NBA's 29th-ranked offense, know what it's like to be cold. For the Rockets, it was apparently a story of playing on the second night of a back-to-back and just not feeling it.

Houston's offense typically features players like Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier and Kyle Lowry standing on the wings, ready to catch the ball and score points. Those three missed everything they threw up in the first quarter. Battier and Ariza made one each in the second quarter, and Battier made two field goals in the third quarter. None made a field goal in the fourth quarter or first overtime, but not for lack of trying. They finished a combined 12 of 37 from the field, which is bad even for three players who are averaging just south of 40% from the floor this season.

Houston needed a savior, and early in the fourth quarter, one of the younger, best-conditioned Rockets -- Aaron Brooks (who played 59 minutes in this game, more than any other player this season) -- turned it on. He finished with 43 points.

Now that's a guy with a hot hand.

Right? Did you see that last play? Aaron Brooks basically beat all five Minnesota defenders by himself.

But ... that play made me think. Doesn't Aaron Brooks play for Houston GM Daryl Morey, who organized the conference in Boston (this year's is coming up, by the way -- get on that) where John Huizinga (the agent of Yao Ming, who also plays for Morey) and Sandy Weil presented a convincing paper demonstrating that the hot hand, if it exists at all, is extremely rare?

Is there such a thing as hotness? Was Aaron Brooks really infused with something special last night?

"I," says David Thorpe, "absolutely believe in the hot hand. No doubt about it."

Watch that highlight reel above again, and stop if with 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter. There's Brooks, in the paint, staring down the entire state of Minnesota. Wide open to his left is the cold Battier. Wide open to his right is the colder Trevor Ariza. What's the best play for the Rockets? Small man vs. big world, or wide-open shooters?

If you believe Brooks was hot, and Battier and Ariza were cold, then you'll take Brooks. But if you don't believe in the hot hand, then don't you have to go with the open shooters?

Morey shared some thoughts on this by e-mail. He had no specific answer about whether or not Brooks should have shot or passed on that play. But he did care that Brooks was rolling: "I believe that generally younger players play better (and this can include shot making) when confident, and making shots absolutely impacts their confidence. Shane Battier, Luis Scola and David Andersen are all very consistent players whose play seems unaffected by whether their last shot has gone in or the game situation (e.g. end of a close game), etc. I do think the rest of the team is affected by their recent play and the game situation to different degrees depending on the player."

That could be taken as an argument that, having made some shots, Brooks was poised to play better than average.

If hotness exists, however, then so does coldness. I pointed out a possession to Morey, late in the game, when Battier seemed to be demonstrating belief in his own coldness -- having just missed a long jumper, he was open for a second attempt, but didn't even look at the hoop. If the research at Morey's conference was correct, Battier should not let a few misses keep him from taking a good shot. "If Shane passes up an open 3-point look, that is obviously not something we want," says Morey, "but often when he does it is because he sees the possibility of getting something better (e.g. he will pass it up for a deep post touch)."

By and large, Morey says the Rockets are looking for a good shot, without regard to who's hot, which is in keeping with the research. But he leaves himself some wiggle room for one of the most cherished ideas in hoops, that players get hot. "I think I can speak for the coaches in that we are just looking for a solid shot each possession, regardless of what has happened in the recent past," writes Morey. But he adds that "Coach will often fluctuate minutes based on if players are having a good/poor night overall," he writes, "which can include shot making ('hot hand') but is generally all encompassing (they are playing solid defense, their matchup is good, etc.).

Brooks cooled off in the overtimes, making two of his seven field goals (both 3s, although he made seven-of-eight overtime free throws.)

With 8.4 seconds left in the second overtime, the Rockets inbounded, in a tie game. It was deja vu. Brooks drove into all of the Minnesota defense. It was the exact same play that had been the highlight of the Rockets' fourth quarter. Ariza, Battier and Lowry were dotted around the perimeter, wide open. Once again, Brooks ignored them all, and wound his way through defenders eager not to foul.

This time, he missed. On to the third overtime.

Had the Rockets made a mistake in not using the open shooters that are the bread and butter of their offense?

In the final overtime, the Rockets clung to a three-point lead. All night, despite Brooks' excellence, the Rockets had been unable to build a meaningful lead when it mattered. Then, with 1:54 left, something amazing happened. One of Houston's three cold wing players finally hit a 3. Battier got one to fall from the corner, and the Rockets, up six, never looked back.

Still at issue: Quadruple- or quintuple-teamed, is it smarter have Brooks shoot or pass? It was the same play in the fourth quarter, and in the second overtime. One tough make and one tough miss. Was Brooks, in fact, hot? Or was he keeping the Rockets from their best available shots with the idea that he was hot?

It's something basketball people are going to argue about for a long time.