The Houston Rockets are getting into a nasty habit. They gave up another 20 point lead to let an Atlantic Division team creep within single digits. The good news is that the Boston Celtics never regained a lead in the second half, unlike the Washington Wizards in the previous game. The bad news is that the Celtics are quite a bit worse than the Wizards, and should have been an even easier out. Unfortunately, a combination of factors culminated in this cakewalk starting and ending more like a steep mountain hike.
The easy answer for what the Rockets did wrong was that they let the Celtics scoop up offensive rebounds. Boston had 15 on the night while the Rockets had 10. Plenty of sequences saw Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk grabbing easy rebounds off Celtics misses with red jerseys standing helplessly. Some of this can be attributed to size differential, as the Rockets were happy to go small, even running Terrence Jones as the center for a while. The Celtics kept larger players on the floor, and survived off of rebounds in the first quarter. This doesn’t explain the fourth quarter, however, when the Rockets suddenly lost the ability to play basketball and instead simply turned the ball over repeatedly while Jerry Bayless went off.
The final result, however, was still a win for Houston. In some ways that’s good enough. In other, more long-term ways, that’s not good at all. Houston’s inability to hang on in early and late game situations has never been in starker contrast. The Rockets brought their high level frustrating game, missing open shots, forcing bad ones, committing unforced turnovers and leaving the perimeter open. If the Celtics had shot better than 17.6% from the three point line, Houston may have been in serious trouble. Instead, they’re in serious trouble a few months down the road if this continues.
Dwight Howard was the best player on the floor, and by itself that’s just fine. Unfortunately, that’s paired with a poor James Harden performance and a spotty shooting night in general. Harden shot a paltry 6-18 from the field and added only 2 free throws, ending rather ingloriously with more shots (18) than points (16). His 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks were welcome, however, but a strange line for a player who typically scores above all else. Howard, for his part, made 11 of his 17 attempts, and struggled though a couple of minutes of Smite-a-Dwight to hit 10 of 18 free throws. his 11 rebounds made for yet another double double, something that he now does more often than not.
Terrence Jones had another excellent night, shooting 6-12, grabbing 12 rebounds along the way and swatting three shots. Jones has continued to improve throughout the season, and at this point he occasionally looks like the best player on the floor for stretches. He also makes sloppy mistakes, especially when tying to drive or handle the ball. He’s starting to try to expand his game now that he’s found his niche, and it’s worth the growing pains to see if he can do it.
Jeremy Lin had a solid outing, forcing the issue and attacking the basket to make 5 of his 7 shots and 5 of his 7 free throws. he tallied an excellent 9 assists and only 1 turnover to go with 3 steals and 16 points for one of the best games of the season for Lin. Repeatedly, he’s shown that when Harden is off, Jeremy Lin is ready to step up and take over those duties. As the season progresses, Lin’s value we become increasingly apparent for a team that struggles with consistency.
And consistency was the issue. The Rockets continue to shoot threes in spurts, missing several to start the game, then getting hot in the middle. If they could regress back up to the mean this season, they would look like a much more dangerous team. The transition defense and the offensive rebounding continue to be issues, but the Rockets can win when one or two factors go wrong. Tonight, the Celtics and Jerryd Bayless threatened to explode, and the Rockets began to falter late. If the Celtics were a better team, the threshold for problems would have been met, and Houston probably would have lost. For better or for worse, Houston came away with a win.