Chase Budinger helped the Rockets start a stretch run Saturday night as Houston pulled away from the Knicks to end their three-game losing streak. After falling behind by double digits in the first quarter for the fourth game in a row, Houston rallied to keep the game close heading into the final quarter. With a minute and a half played in the fourth, Budinger scored off of an outside curl to give the Rockets a two-point lead. When the Knicks’ Nate Robinson attacked the paint at the other end of the floor, Budinger used his quick hands to snag an errant pass out to the perimeter. The rookie guard outran two defenders and slammed the ball home on the break, putting Houston up by four and securing the lead for good.
The victory was only Budinger’s third game back after suffering a high ankle sprain on December 19. The athletic swingman has averaged eight points and 3.1 rebounds in 18.4 minutes this season, and the Rockets sorely missed that production while Budinger recuperated. His breakaway dunk Saturday energized the Toyota Center crowd and helped propel the Rockets into the stretch run they needed. Budinger told reporters after the game that he felt he was playing at 85 percent.
“I feel like I can't jump like I usually do,” Budinger said. “Even that dunk — that's not a normal jump for me. I didn't get up, so I'm a little frustrated because of it.
“Hopefully it will come back, and I know it will. It's just going to take time.”
When Budinger does return to 100 percent, Rick Adelman may have some tough decisions to make. The Rockets’ starters have fallen behind early in each of the past four games. It was only by finally outhustling the Knicks in the fourth on Saturday that the team was able to end its season-high three-game losing streak. If Houston’s starting five continues its inability to score 20 points or more in the opening period, Adelman may have to consider altering his lineup.
The Rockets’ struggles to score early in games have particularly plagued the starting trio of Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes, and Trevor Ariza. None are gifted one-on-one scorers. Ariza, who shoots the greatest volume amongst the three, is averaging a fairly miserable 37.8 percent from the field and 31.2 percent behind the arc.
While Budinger was out, Ariza and Battier both played heavy minutes. Battier surpassed his season average of 33.1 minutes in five of the games Budinger missed, including two games of 40-plus minutes. Ariza averaged 40 minutes. No doubt the Rockets hope that with the rookie back in the lineup, Battier and Ariza will be able to play fewer, more productive minutes moving forward.
Budinger has tantalized Rockets fans with his potential as a starter since his solid performances in the NBA Summer League. If the starting five continue to struggle scoring in the first quarters of games, Rick Adelman may find himself testing that potential sooner than he’d planned.