On Nov. 13, the Rockets visited the Denver Nuggets, a place where Lawson had success for four seasons until a summer trade sent him to Houston.
Coming into that game, Lawson had made just 10 of 34 shots from the field and had gone 3-for-11 from 3-point range over a three-game span.
In his return to Denver, amid a spattering of boos, Lawson lost everything. He didn’t have the same aggression the Rockets were looking for when they traded four backups for him. He bypassed shots and looked tentative. It appeared the crowd got to him.
Lawson shot 0-of-7 in 34 quiet minutes in a loss.
It was a miserable night.
Then Kevin McHale was fired on Nov. 18 and new coach J.B. Bickerstaff made what seemed like a necessary move: He benched Lawson.
And when Lawson returns to the Pepsi Center on Monday night, Nuggets fans will discover a much better player.
“Just trying to fit in, that’s what I was doing early,” Lawson said. “Now I’m just trying to play my game and see where it goes from there.”
In the last seven games, Lawson is 6-of-10 from 3-point range whereas in the previous 10 games he missed 14 of 15 3s. Lawson might have just one double-digit scoring game since the benching, but he’s overall playing better.
He’s attacking the glass more with the second unit. When paired up with James Harden, the man he was supposed to ignite the Rockets offense with as a starter, they play off each other more. You see Harden give up the ball-handling duties more so that Lawson can push the offensive pace.
Chemistry, something that’s been missing with Lawson and Harden and whomever else he was playing with, is developing.
“I’m getting more into the system,” Lawson said. “I’m playing more like myself, I’m kicking it out and finding more open people, I’m having more freedom to get in the paint and have more spacing. It’s getting there.”
In Saturday’s victory over the Lakers, Lawson made one of those plays the Rockets have been looking for all season. He drove the lane and when an extra defender sagged over to help, Lawson found Clint Capela for an easy dunk.
It’s those plays the Rockets need to see more out of Lawson as they continue their surge through the West.
“He’s moving there,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s pushing the ball and getting in the paint. He plays well with James in the pick-and-roll and those types of things and his minutes have been extended. His runs have been longer and he’s getting there where he needs to be.”
There’s no guarantee Lawson will return to the starting lineup and Bickerstaff said bench players will earn their minutes every night because this Rockets team just isn’t where they want to be just yet.
Sure, the Rockets have won five of six games but they visit a Nuggets team that has beaten them twice this season.
With Lawson performing at an acceptable rate, he could provide the Rockets with a burst that’s badly needed.
“At some point in time, when you’re having a hard time and you get to rock bottom, and then your mind is clear,” Bickerstaff said. “He was trying to so hard to do the right things, I think he was frustrating himself and he got to the point where he said ‘I’m just going to play’ and I think that’s where he is now. The more and more he plays and he’s relaxed, the more that his true talent will shine through. We know what he is, we know what he’s capable of and we just got to get him there.”