If there was such a thing as a schedule loss, tonight was it. The Rockets were playing in Denver, having played another late game the night before in Los Angeles, which thus meant that they lost an hour through time zones. If that was not bad enough, Denver, a team which has plenty of energetic bigs who love to run like Kenneth Faried and Jan Vesely, was a terrible fit for a Houston team with such a thin frontcourt. Combine that with Randy Foye going off against Houston like a mixture of Jason Terry and Jordan, and hey, there’s nothing that can be done, right?
If viewed solely from the perspective of wins and losses, perhaps. But tonight was a test about whether Houston could have just a little fortitude and come one step closer to securing that home court advantage they have fought all season for. But at the very end, it was not the Houston players who will be playing in the playoffs who showed toughness, but rather the D-League players fighting for their next contract who nearly pulled off a miraculous victory.
From the very beginning, the Rockets looked completely uninterested in this game. They started 1-10 from the field, fell behind as much as 30-11, and were overall completely lethargic. While they failed to hit a single three-pointer on offense, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov frequently just ran down the court, got the ball, and dunked. Irritated by Houston’s poor effort, McHale went to his bench early, but in fact that seemed to make problems worse: substituting Motiejunas for Asik, for example, did not help stop Denver’s transition offense, and it only worsened Houston’s massive struggles on the glass.
For the rest of the game, it was more of the same. Houston would have a spurt which made it seem like they could get back in this game, but then Denver would respond with a run of their own. In the 2nd quarter, it was Lin leading the charge, as he scored all 18 of his points in the first half. In the 3rd quarter, it was better three-point shooting, before it collapsed due to Randy Foye being absolutely on fire, scoring 22 points in the quarter on his way to 30 overall. Yes, Houston’s shaky perimeter defense did not exactly help, but once Foye started to get hot, he just began to hit everything, not to mention his 15 assists to just 1 turnover. Even in the 4th quarter, when McHale decided to pull the plug early out of schedule concerns, the bench group led by Troy Daniels cut a 22 point deficit to 4 with less than 2 minutes left, but Foye hit a tough layup and Houston could not secure a rebound. Same old, same old.
- What is more important than tonight’s game is a look at James Harden’s health. In the third quarter, Harden had a rough tumble with Aaron Brooks, and was slow to get up holding his right leg. Harden did check back in a while later, his right knee wrapped in a bright red brace, but he remained passive for the rest of the game. While it clearly is not too severe, Harden’s rough style of play means that you always have to wonder about injuries with him, despite his rugged build.
- Houston has not held a team to less than 105 points since March 27, the last game when Howard and Beverley. To say that Houston’s perimeter defense is all Beverley is unreasonable. Probably the main reason for Houston’s weak defense is that just like last season, the defense lacks a suitable big man anchor when Asik rests; in fact, it is weaker as while Greg Smith was no defense stalwart, having him at all was better than nothing. Defense, as Charlotte this season and Chicago in general have shown, is at times about effort and discipline, and a Houston team with the 4th seed all but wrapped is clearly just waiting for the regular season to end.
- I say “all but wrapped up”, but it’s still possible for the Blazers to reach the 4th seed, especially after their 100-99 win over Sacramento tonight. The magic number of Rockets wins and Blazers losses needed remains 2. It would take a dismal collapse for Houston to give it up even after tonight. But as long as it can still happen, the Rockets need to stop sleepwalking as they did tonight.