Houston's pocket Rocket takes off
The Rockets are developing another weapon in second-year guard Aaron Brooks
The 6-foot, 160-pound point guard is making the most of his opportunity to start
Brooks was inspired watching undersized PG Rajon Rondo help Boston win a title
Unscrew the face plate of the Houston Rockets these days and you'll find Aaron Brooks inside, like one of those itty-bitty aliens at the controls of a Men in Black behemoth. The NBA isn't exactly a Hollywood sci-fi league -- Shawn (The Matrix) Marion, Wall-E Szczerbiak and Minnesota's The Day the Earth Stood Still victory total notwithstanding -- but that's the imagery that comes to mind when you see Brooks, maybe 6 feet tall in sneakers and 160 pounds, having an urgent, on-court, eye-to-midsection conversation with 7-6, 310-pound Yao Ming: little guy, big machine.
The Rockets have high-tech NBA weapons at nearly every spot: a one-of-a-kind center (Yao), an elite shooting guard (Tracy McGrady), a craftsman power forward (Luis Scola), a glue-and-energy guy (Shane Battier) and a lockdown defender and wild-card sixth man (Ron Artest).
That leaves the point, the triggerman, the player with so many resources at his command. Normally, Rafer Alston is the guy at that spot, and the respect he has earned across 10 NBA seasons still comes grudgingly, if at all. With Alston sidelined by a strained left hamstring over the past four games, Brooks, a second-year pro from Oregon, has been coming on strong. Maybe, inch for inch, pound for pound, stronger than anyone in the league right now.
"People think I'm taller than I really am, until they actually see me up close and in person,'' Brooks said before the Rockets' game at Minnesota on Saturday. "I don't even look at it anymore. All the questions -- 'Does size really matter' and 'Size is going to hinder his career' -- I think that's out the window now.
"Allen Iverson was the most recent guy I know who maximized his talent, being this size. Watching him, seeing what he's doing and how he gets away with stuff, that's helped my game out a lot. Honestly, I don't think about it at all. It depends on how you play. Most guys 6-7 play like they're 6-2.''
Brooks has started Houston's past four games and has averaged 17.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in more than 38 minutes. He scored 18 points with six assists and two steals in a Dec. 16 start against Denver and, against the Timberwolves, he earned his first NBA double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds -- all the boards at the defensive end, the littlest guy on the court single-handedly matching Houston's starting frontcourt of Battier, Scola and Yao. At New Jersey on Monday, Brooks sank eight of his team-high 14 field-goal attempts, scored 22 points and dished eight assists.
In the Nuggets game, All-Star guard Chauncey Billups shot 3-of-10 and scored just eight points. In New Jersey, Nets point guard Devin Harris was 2-of-9 for 10 points. Better still, Houston won both nights, its season-best winning streak reaching four games.
"Every time a guy like [Billups] has an off game, you've done a pretty good [defensive] job and he's had an off game,'' Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "But Aaron's been much more consistent. We knew he was a good shooter -- he didn't shoot it that well last year, but he's picked it up there. He's really only had two or three games where he's struggled a bit, and since Rafer went down, he has stepped in and played very well.''
Almost every night, Adelman said, Brooks faces a size disparity. That hasn't been his biggest defensive challenge, though.
"I don't think you can really learn that until you get out on the floor and you play people bigger than you. You have to find your way,'' the coach said. "But it's out on the floor, believe it or not, where he [has to improve], how to get through picks. You know in this league, there are so many pick-and-rolls. Point guards are the ones who are going to be attacked. He's getting better at getting through picks.''
And when opponents try to exploit his size, as they invariably do, by posting up bigger, stronger guards? The Rockets send help, taking care of someone who takes care of them.
"We've tried to cover for that in our defensive system,'' assistant coach Elston Turner said, "in our game plan, double teams, things like that. We're always looking out for him on the other end so we can keep him on the floor and get what he brings us offensively.''
Brooks has hit 11-of-23 three-point shots (47.8 percent) during Houston's winning streak. Woe to the opponents who try to use pressure when the ball is in his hands; Minnesota didn't even bother, picking up backup Luther Head for 94 feet but backing way off Brooks.
"He adds a certain amount of quickness that every team doesn't have,'' Turner said. "As far as a coach's chess match, it's a valuable piece to have. We can put him in to break presses, to penetrate. That's nice to have when you're thinking strategy.''
The 26th pick in 2007, five spots ahead of teammate Carl Landry, Brooks also has been growing into his role as the Rockets' traffic cop. It has been a slow process, requiring two stints at the NBA Summer League and a two-game detour last season to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League. He played in 51 games for 608 minutes as an NBA rookie, a total he blew by Monday in just 27 appearances this season. There still are lots of growing pains -- Brooks and Artest had an intense conversation the other night as they left the floor for a fourth-quarter timeout.
"He's young. Gotta give him some margin for error,'' Artest said. "We've just got to talk it out.''
Said McGrady: "This league is really about confidence. He's playing with a great deal of confidence right now, feeling a lot more comfortable out there. I think it helps him, playing behind a guy like Rafer who's so sound and solid. You got a guy like that you can watch for a full year, you learn from that. He's still improving as a point guard, learning how to control the tempo, not forcing things.''
McGrady said he has schooled Brooks to assert himself, to never worry about catering to him and the team's other marquee names.
"We're going to get our shots, we're going to get our points,'' McGrady said. "The most important thing with him is to stay aggressive. Don't overdo it [passing]. Play your game and don't look over your shoulder.''
Brooks seems fine. He sees his chances now both as privilege and opportunity, feeling responsibility for a team with lofty goals while marveling at the helpers he has.
"I haven't been in the league that long, but some guys who have never had the opportunity to play on a team like this,'' he said. "This is a very special team, so I know I've got to step up and do my part so I'm not the fall of this team. We've got great, great players on each side of the ball, at every position, so you don't want to be the weak one.''
Brooks draws some inspiration from a slight point guard in the East who similarly found himself behind the wheel of a ridiculously potent performance car.
"I kind of look at it the way [Rajon] Rondo did, that he was a young point guard with all those talented guys and everybody wanted to know if he was going to be their downfall,'' Brooks said. "But he stepped up and he's the reason they won a championship. That's what I want to be. The good thing is, I don't have to do it. We have a great point guard in Rafer and we can win by committee.''
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.