With the general reaction to the disappointing defeat on Thursday, one must always put things in perspective and remind himself that it was one game. One game with disappointing effort and a huge amount of problems, but one game nevertheless. Houston will attempt to regroup from the loss against one Los Angeles team by facing the other, stronger team – one which has already inflicted an even more devastating defeat against the Rockets, but has had problems themselves during the early regular season.
Perhaps a look at the Clippers can help to remind Rockets fans that the season is early. The Clippers entered this season with even higher expectations than the Rockets. A plurality of ESPN experts during the preseason selected them to be the Western Conference champions (as well as myself, for what that is worth), and Chris Paul was tagged to be a MVP candidate. Their new coach, Doc Rivers, raved in the preseason about DeAndre Jordan as he said that the 25-year old center would be part of a “big three” alongside Paul and Blake Griffin. Yet despite all of this and the Clippers’s vicious pounding of the Rockets five days ago, they are 3-3, a full game behind the Rockets and with an inferior point differential to boot. They have lost to the Orlando Magic as well as the Lakers, and the latter did not need a last second 3 to beat the Clippers. Jordan, their supposed defensive anchor, has so far led the Clippers right to the 29th best defense in the league as measured by defensive rating.
None of this is to denigrate the Clippers. Houston knows better than any other team how dangerous they can be, when JJ Reddick is shooting off of screens (the shooting guard currently has a PER of 20, well above his career high of 15.1), when Lob City gets to work, and when Chris Paul shows that he is the best point guard in the league, not Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, or Derrick Rose. The Clippers may currently be the 2nd worst defensive team in the league, but they are the best offensive team. They will eventually straighten out the kinks, and almost certainly end up competing for the West’s top spot like so many predicted. But almost everything that I just said about the Clippers can be applied to the Rockets as well.
As tough as the loss to the Lakers was, there is plenty of time for Houston to adjust. To figure out what to do with the Howard-Asik lineup, to figure out the problems at the point guard position, to become a more cohesive unit with better chemistry. These are not small problems, and it will take time to figure out a solution for them. But when one looks at the Clippers, with their higher expectations and yet worse record, it serves to remind oneself that despite their recent drubbing of the Rockets, the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Key Note of Importance:
Defense in basketball, more often than not, is about who has the best 7-footer near the hoop. Even elite defensive point guards like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd found themselves on mediocre or even bad defenses depending on the big men backing them, while Hakeem, Dwight Howard, and other great defensive big men were capable of almost singlehandedly ensuring that their defense was elite. That has more or less been the logic behind the Howard-Asik combo, as the hope has been that the improved defense could compensate for any offensive regression.
Yet while Howard and Asik can work together to create a great defense, they are not a carte blanche for the other three Rockets to do as they please. There has been plenty written on James Harden’s defensive lapses (a natural result of plays like these), but as Zach Lowe observed on Twitter during the earlier game against the Clippers, it is on all three wing players. There has been a lack of simple awareness, of knowing who is supposed to be where at what time, and a failure to close out on shooters. While Howard-Asik can stop any attempts to score at the rim, it becomes a much different story against very good jump shooting teams like both the Lakers and the Clippers. Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons cannot afford to make the same mistakes against Paul and the new wing arrivals in Reddick and Jared Dudley that they did last time if they are going to win tonight.