The Rockets are fresh from a two win patch against the Southwest Division, have been rolling without James Harden and are finally going to get some breathing room between games. They’re looking forward to a struggling Eastern Conference opponent to visit Houston and keep practicing the early signs of defense against. The Cleveland Cavaliers, on the other hand, are basically in Tartarus. They’re gone 3-8 since Luol Deng entered the Cleveland lineup, and that includes going 1-5 in the last 6 games. For a team willing to leverage a little bit of the future to climb out of the lottery in a mind-bogglingly weak season out east, that’s not enough. This team needs wins and they need them yesterday.
The question is whether Houston will hand them one of those wins. The Rockets are easily the better team, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from dropping games here and there. With some defensive effort, some ball movement and a lack of further injuries, the Rockets should walk out of this one easily. That’s the most likely scenario, make no mistake. That’s also been the case against teams like the Kings and the Sixers and the Jazz and the Lakers, and those teams account for five of Houston’s seventeen losses.
This isn’t to say that we should expect the Rockets to lose. That would be silly and inaccurate. No, the point is that we really just don’t know what to expect. This team has been a work in progress all year, and the amount of progress seems to vary wildly. Some days they win with defense, and other days they win by scorching the other team. Some days they give away double digit leads at the last minute and some days they mount giant comebacks late. If the Rockets learned how to consistently play at even 80% of their ability, they would have a much better record.
So once again, another meaningless January game becomes yet another measuring stick. With so many players in and out of the roster, it’s never clear what the rotation will look like or if they’ll be able to make sense together on court. The plus side of this is that players like Donatas Motiejunas have seen minutes and he’s starting to look like a salvageable player. The downside is that the Grizzlies slammed them into the ground like a roadwork team. Experience is a difference maker, and right now we have front row seats to the way you get experience: adversity.
So how can the Cavs make life hard for the Rockets? The short answer is that Kyrie Irving is easily one of the best point guards in the league, and he can go off at any moment like a supernova. He’s struggled this year, but Houston’s tenuous grasp on team defense might offer him the opportunity he needs to have a statement game. He can’t go one on five very often, but he’s shown that he can win games by himself once in a while.
The Cavs have more besides, of course, and with Anderson Varejao and Luol Deng on the court, there’s some veteran savvy and rebounding prowess out there, two things the Rockets have struggled with. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are both young and improving and have shown flashes of skill. Anthony Bennett was a first overall draft pick, was invited to the Rising Stars Challenge and recently scored 13 points in a game. Alonzo Gee used to be on the Austin Toros full time and then managed to fight his way into being a starter on an NBA team, so that’s impressive. C.J. Miles, Jarrett Jack, and Earl Clark are also NBA players.
At a certain point, however, it’s less about who’s wearing the away uniform and more about who’s wearing the Rockets jerseys. In past years there seemed to be good and bad versions of the team who would show up randomly. This season, the identity crisis has only deepened, with a wide array of inexplicable gaps in their game and differing methods to lose or win. Will the defensive-minded team that can’t score show up, or will it be the putback dunk alley-oop specialists? With the wild swings lately, it feels impossible to predict. It’s frustrating and confusing at times, but it’s a step in a process. And, hey, at least most of those versions of the Rockets are better than the Cavs.
Tip off is at 7:00 pm Central time at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. For more Cavaliers coverage, check out Cavs: The Blog, ESPN’s Cleveland Cavaliers affiliate.