by Lang Whitaker

As the Blazers and Rockets wound down last night, I had to keep reminding myself that we’re early in the season. Otherwise, why would Brandon Roy have fouled Yao Ming with less than a second to go. Similarly, why would the Rockets have left Brandon Roy open with 0.8 on the clock?

Like Charles Barkley said on Inside the NBA…

“One of my pet peeves with basketball is you should never score when the ball is out of bounds for the simple fact that you have five guys guarding four guys. That’s exactly what you just had (in the Rockets/Trail Blazers game) and (the Trail Blazers) still got a wide open jumper. That’s terrible defense.”

Terrible defense from a team that is allegedly one of the best defensive teams in the game, no less. I realize Battier is out, but really, that was the best defense Rick Adelman could come up with? Watch the play again here…

That play is why I don’t trust Rick Adelman or the Rockets to win a set of nice, shiny rings this year. Break down!

1. At the start of the play, T-Mac is guarding Brandon Roy on the block, which seems insane to begin with (T-Mac is your best defender?), considering you also have a guy on your team known for playing tough defense and also for running into the stands and punching fans.

2. HOWEVA!, the Rockets have Artest guarding Travis Outlaw on the same side of the lane. So apparently the Rockets thought that Outlaw would set a pick for Roy, and on the switch the Rockets would end up with Artest on Roy and then T-Mac on Outlaw, which makes sense.

3. A little background information needs to be injected here: NBA teams always switch picks on inbounds plays at the end of games. Always, always, always. I have never played in the NBA, yet even I know this rule: You always switch the pick. Always.

So what do you do if you’re involved defending a pick on an inbounds play at the end of a game? SWITCH AND GUARD THE OTHER GUY! If there’s not a pick? STICK WITH YOUR MAN!

Got it? Because T-Mac doesn’t.

4. When the play starts, Brandon Roy immediately makes a cut for the ball. T-Mac makes no attempt to deny the ball (or the cut to the ball) whatsoever. Now, Outlaw is standing there as if he could set a pick for Roy, but Roy, unguarded, doesn’t need it. He just runs right past Outlaw, catches the pass and shoots an open jumper to win the game.

5. How did this happen? T-Mac thought Outlaw was going to set a pick for Roy. As Roy runs away from him, T-Mac sort of idly points at him, as though he was expecting Artest to switch onto Roy. The problem was that no pick was ever set, so Ron Artest didn’t switch onto him. Which means who was guarding Roy? Nobody! Yay Rockets! T-Mac assumed the pick was going to happen. The pick didn’t happen. And we all know hat happens when you assume…

6. If you’re a Rockets fan and you really want to feel bad about the play, watch when Roy actually catches the ball. Artest sees him running around free, so he runs at him just as T-Mac finally catches up to him, which works as a late double-team (as the shot was already in the air). If Portland wanted, they actually had Travis Outlaw completely unguarded right at the top of the key, also. So while playing 4-on-5, Portland basically created two wide open shots to win the game.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Brandon Roy, because that jumper was a tough shot no matter the circumstances. Maybe getting Battier back will make a difference for the Rockets — you wouldn’t have had T-Mac involved in that play, for instance — but it was a lazy play for a team that’s supposed to be one of the best teams in the NBA.

(Also, Portland still needs a point guard. But we’ll talk about that another time.)

• My Atlanta Hawks are balling right now. For my Hawks.com column that went up yesterday (yep, I’m back again this season, every Thursday, on hawks.com — hey, they brought me on last year and we made the Playoffs!) I channeled Barack. I’m pushing for Yes We Can to be the new Hawks slogan. Josh Smith claims to have my back on this.

The New Orleans win was particularly significant, because the Hawks spent the first half being sliced and diced by Chris Paul. This isn’t completely surprising, considering CP3 is the best point guard in the world right now. He has 19 at the half, but in the second the Hawks bottled him up and held him to 3 points, mostly because Mike Bibby got benched and Flip Murray had the half of his life.

I checked with the Hawks right after that game and was told Bibby was not injured. Which means he was just benched. It’s understandable, because at the time Flip Murray was playing out his mind. Still, I was wondering if this was a situation that blow up and cause problems. That’s the kind of stuff that on young teams causes linger issues.

But I feel better today after reading Sekou Smith’s report on the situation. The Hawks are growing up right before our eyes. And tonight they get to go against the Raptors, so maybe we’ll get some respect from Canada now. I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable. (BTW, I’ve got my fingers crossed that Chuck Swirsky’s not doing the game on League Pass.)

• I like TNT’s new graphics, except for the way the score bug on the screen has a yellow line under the team with the lead. I already understand the basic principles of math, so I knew the team with the higher amount of points is in the lead. But the yellow line makes it look like that team is carrying a yellow card or something.

• I spent about two hours last night reading, initialing and signing various copies of contracts for The Book. And as I discovered while poring through the pages of legalese, one great thing my agent negotiated me: If my book about being a fan of the Atlanta Braves gets turned into a theme park ride, I get 100 percent of the royalties and the book company, Scribner, gets zero. Suck on that, Scribner!

• Finally, the Iverson/Billups trade…

Long-term, I think the deal makes the Nuggets better. They lose scoring but gain a floor leader and gain size, which should improve their team defense. Chauncey isn’t the player he was five years ago, but he can still ball. Does this push Denver to the upper echelon in the West? No, at least I don’t thing so, because they probably still need a starting-caliber two guard (sorry, JR Smith). But it does make them better than they were.

With Detroit, meanwhile, it’s hard for me to shake the idea that they essentially gave up not only on this season but next one as well. By all accounts, the main reason the Pistons traded away the glue of their team in order to get Iverson was because his contract expires this summer, so instead of being locked into Chauncey through 2012, they’ll now have gobs of money in the summer of 2010, when Bron, Bosh and all those dudes become free agents.

That’s great, but what happens next? The Detroit Free Press immediately referred to Iverson as “new point guard Allen Iverson,” which seems like a bad idea from the jump. AI has never been mistaken for a point guard, and I don’t think that’s going to change at this point in his career.

At the same time, Iverson needs the ball in his hands and needs to work off the dribble to be successful. Doesn’t that kinda negate Rip and all the running and cutting and weaving he does? Also, if Iverson starts at the point and Rip at the two, where does that leave Rodney Stuckey? If Iverson and Stuckey start in the backcourt, where does that leave Rip, or Tayshaun, or Sheed, or whomever? And if Detroit is really concerned with making a run right now, why would they also trade their most valuable bench player in McDyess? Does Detroit have enough firepower and depth to win the Eastern Conference? That’s got to be their goal, right?

At the end of the day, it’s a strange move for Detroit, at least in the short-term.

Or maybe it’s just me. I dunno…after this trade, it just seems like there’s more questions than Answers…