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Houston Rockets @ Indiana Pacers on 1/18/2013

The Houston Rockets are in the throes of a massive slump, losing a season worst five games in a row. As recently as January 8th, the Rockets and the Pacers shared a 21-14 record, both looking like playoff locks after starting slow. Since then, the Rockets fell into a tailspin and now desperately need to win games and keep their playoff hopes alive. The second highest-scoring team in the NBA faces off against the stingiest team in the league to see if Houston can steal one on the road.

After a blistering string of high scoring wins, the Rockets negated their five game win streak with a five game losing streak. In those losses, the Rockets scored over 100 points only once, and they’ve shot a mediocre 44% from the field. In December, the Rockets were using their speed and efficiency to slice elite defenses into pieces. In January, the Rockets have looked sluggish and listless, missing layups, free throws and jumpers. As the minutes and games pile up, the Rockets face their 9th game in 14 days, and will have played 10 in 15 days on Saturday. The starters continue to log big minutes and log worse and worse shooting and effort. Something has to change if the Rockets plan on holding their rapidly slipping playoff spot.

Head Coach Kevin McHale seems to be ready to loosen his rotation at last, given the need for rest. New Rockets Patrick Beverly stepped up in his scant minutes against the Mavericks, showing a degree of effort and hustle that the rest of the team seemed sorely missing. Beverly may not find himself playing many minutes in the long term, but during tough stretches, or when starters are exhausted, he seems like exactly the fourth guard the Rockets needed to insert into the lineup. When the Rockets turn games into track meets, they need to have enough runners to pass the baton to. If the Rockets are willing to lose games poisoned with building fatigue, they may as well be willing to lose games while developing their prospects and bench chemistry.

Every young team faces painful trials necessary for growth, and the Rockets are no exception. Unsustainable rotations, still tenuous team chemistry, and cagey veterans have certainly not helped the Rockets’ primary liabilities, turnovers and defense. The failures have been failures of execution, not failures of mentality. Even when the Rockets clank every open look, they still push down the stretch, and think they can win any game. They have the willingness to win ugly games, even if they lack the ability to actually win them.

Unfortunately, the Pacers are one of the league leaders in making games ugly. Vogel’s Pacers hang their hat on a methodical, crushing defense that slows the game down (they play at a plodding 92.3 possessions per game). After they grind down the other team with 24 second defense, they bring the ball up in one of the most uneven offenses in the league. While they have the best defensive efficiency in the league, only the Wizards have a worse offensive efficiency. The result are games that take teams out of their flow, present viewers with scoring droughts, and result in abnormally low scores.

The good news for the Rockets is that their tenuous grasp of defense won’t be tested too hard. Roy Hibbert, while still a defensive stalwart, has had an abysmal year on offense. He’s averaging only 41% from the field, which is mind-boggling given that the majority of his shots come within a few feet of the rim. Hibbert doesn’t look 100%, and that should free Asik to help more of defense. Danny Granger, previously the Pacers’ offensive anchor, is still out with a knee injury. While he’s never been the most efficient scorer, he can play every aspect of the game, including smart defense. The Pacers have done a good job of hanging tough without Granger, but his absence hurts them.

Paul George, on the other hand, has made the most of what he’s been handed. The third year man out of Fresno State is averaging an impressive 16.9 points, 2.9 assists and 7.8 rebounds this year, and looks poised to retain big minutes, even after Granger returns. The Rockets will have to make allowances for him while still looking out for an old enemy. Ex-Hornet David West has provided a stabilizing influence for the young Pacers, and has always provided a lethal shooting touch from midrange. “The 17 foot assassin” will be all too happy to punish the Rockets yet again unless they can stay on him. Given the Rockets’ problems with perimeter defense, and their penchant for switching on screens, West may find himself shooting over a lot of shorter players trying desperately to close out.

If the Rockets can enforce their pace, they stand a good chance of taking a win from one of the better eastern conference teams. It worked against the Grizzlies and the Bulls, and should be effective again if their energy holds up. On the other hand, if the Rockets legs go out, they’re in for a long, slow night. If the shots stop falling from the outside, the paint will suddenly clog, and the Rockets will be left with few good options. Even if they can force trips to the free throw line, they still have to make those shots, too. Lately, even those shots don’t want to fall. Smart use of the bench and metering of minutes will prove necessary for McHale. Frank Vogel is a smart coach with a smart team, and Kevin McHale will have to pull every trick out of his coaching bag. If things get ugly, as they usually do against the Pacers, the Rockets will have to ask a question they’ve failed to answer in January: How do we win ugly games?

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