The Rockets came into New Orleans on a five game win streak, the wind to their backs and the eyes of a league on them. After 48 minutes, they left the court on a one game losing streak, looking winded. The Rockets put up their weakest scoring performance of the year as the Hornets showed tenacity and defensive prowess against a normally lethal offense. Unexpected hero Roger Mason Jr went off to bury the Rockets in the fourth quarter while James Harden barely kept his streak of 25-point games alive.
The Rockets began the game sluggish, getting out to their usual first quarter deficit. This time, however, the opposing team trailed at the end of the first, and the Rockets looked ready to buck the trend of losing the first and winning the game. The 22 point quarter for the Rockets portended something else: they went on to score only 14 in the second, and 10 in the fourth quarters. Despite leading by 10 after a strong third quarter (33 to 25, Rockets’ favor), Houston made only four field goals in the fourth, including one by Lin in the waning seconds of the game, after all chances of recovery had faded.
After a long string of high-performance shooting nights, the Rockets barely managed 40% shooting from the floor against the Hornets, and a poor 33% from deep. As fatigue levels increased, all the Rockets clearly lost energy and accuracy, leading to the two most dismal scoring quarters in their season, both in the same game. Hornets head coach Monty Williams and his defensive schemes must be credited with a large portion of this performance as well. Hornets players rotated well and cut off open lanes to the basket while remaining active on closing out. This Hornets team hot off a win against the Spurs looked confident and composed on the defensive end, and the Rockets were unable to mount a sufficient offense.
The Rockets’ brutal January schedule has been ramping up the difficulty, and this second back to back in a row is merely the second of five, a difficult slate of games stretching from January 4th to January 19th. The Rockets use a style of play that runs other teams out of games and obviates even the best of defenses on their path to 120 point games. However, this style of run and run offense seems to require a level of energy that is simply unsustainable on weeks were the Rockets play four or five games in a single week. Whether fast pace can operate in the playoffs is a question less immediately important than if it can work in January. Williams and the Hornets’ solid defense can’t be underestimated, but the Rockets simply looked gassed. As the game wound down, open threes clanged off the rim and even James Harden, finisher extraordinaire was missing the hoop on layups. The Hornets have been successful at slowing the Rockets to their pace, and in this game it was all too easy to get a trudging Houston team to play half court offense.
Harden notched his 25th point with 15 seconds left in the game on a free throw. Whether a 25 point game streak is important or not, he kept the streak alive. In what was a bad night for him, he only hit half his field goals (9-18) and only got to the line for 6 free throws. He picked up 3 rebounds and 4 assists, but gave the ball away a game-high 7 times. In fact, the Rockets overall had a particularly sloppy and turnover prone game, recording 23 as a team.
Only Omer Asik (8 pts, 4-6 shooting, 8 rebounds) and Toney Douglas (7 pts, 2-4 shooting) managed to match or exceed the 50% mark from the field. Asik had a quiet, decent game, and Douglas continued to settle into his new score-first role. In a bizarre contrast to the beginning of the season, Douglas now serves as a calming influence off the bench. Toney is happy to shoot the ball, and his decent handle gives his cuts and weaves a better chance at success. Instead of leading the bench toward a mountain of turnovers, he now tends to lead rallies.
With the exception of Patterson grabbing a very solid 10 rebounds, Parsons grabbing 8, and Lin hawking his way to a remarkable 5 steals, the rest of the team simply looked beat down and bad. Morris shot 2-3 from deep, but then spoiled that glimmer with four missed shots from inside the arc, including close looks that he should be hitting. Parsons and Delfino combined for 4-13 from deep, clanging shot after shot, many of them quite open. Greg Smith once again only played a few minutes (5:46) in a troubling trend for him and the team. Perhaps his defense hasn’t satisfied the exacting Kevin McHale, but his offense has been so solid that it seems a loss for him to sit on the bench so much.
The silver lining on this gray cloud of a game is that the problems presented look mostly solvable and temporary, not systemic. The Rockets have been scoring at a heroic clip, and one 79 point game is more likely an anomaly than a new trend. The offense was able to manufacture decent looks, they simply couldn’t hit any of them. Fatigue played a role in this game, and that can be adjusted for. In the long term, there are some positives to losing when your legs simply don’t work and some negatives to winning when Roger Mason Jr turns in 17 point, 6-7 performance. The bigger issues of finding bench minutes to alleviate the strain on the starters and managing back to back games are something the Rockets will have to figure out. As long as they can weather a rough January and make it into the playoffs, those regular season questions will hopefully fade away as more important playoff questions loom. For the next three weeks, however, they may have to answer one question most of all: how do you win ugly games?