The Sky Is Not Falling – After the loss to the lowly Jazz, I expected the Rockets to slip quite a bit in the stats-based Hollinger Power Rankings on ESPN, which heavily weights factors such as win margin, strength of schedule, and records over the past 10 games. And I was wrong. At the time of this writing the Rockets are still firmly in contender territory at no. 4.
So on a related note, here’s David Thorpe talking about how good the Rockets are despite the stumble in Salt Lake:
Thorpe tends to be generous in his analysis of the Rockets, and has been for several years. It seems that the team’s values with respect to player evaluation and on-court strategies line up with his own.
I was a little bit shocked to hear his comment about James Harden’s commitment on defense. The reaction to the Beard’s performance on that end, particularly against Utah, has garnered a lot of criticism. The more I watch Harden defend, the more I see the pattern emerging that he’s fairly solid when his man has the ball in isolation and he’s locked in. However, when he’s guarding a cutter or someone who is running around two or three screens on a single half-court set (as Hayward was the other night, and as J.J. Redick did when torching Houston), he struggles. It’s an issue that will need to be addressed not just through Harden’s personal effort, but through training with coaches and through communicating with teammates about adjusting when Harden gets splattered by a pick.
If the Houston Rockets played their best and worst games of the season one after the other, what does that mean for the next game? That’s the big question for a team that seems to have more trouble with worse teams. With Jeremy Lin still out, with Chandler Parsons still fighting through back spasms and with the team either unwilling or unable to cement their team defense, this visit by the Phoenix Suns is looming larger than it should. Will the Rockets sink into frustration or will Phoenix pay for what happened to the Rockets in Utah?
The Suns may have some avenging of their own to do. Phoenix visits the Memphis Grizzlies the day before heading to Houston, and stands a very real chance of losing to both hungry Southwest division teams. After what might be a brutal showdown with a Grizzlies team desperate to put their season together yet again, a tired Suns might be just what the Rockets need to reassert themselves on both ends of the floor.
All That Power – The Rockets climbed to number 6 in Marc Stein’s ESPN Power Rankings, leapfrogging the Clippers and the Warriors. Stein writes:
The three-game break imposed on James Harden couldn’t have gone much better. Houston swept all three without him and then welcomed back a fresher and more team-oriented Harden. Seeing his teammates succeed while he rested that persistently sore left foot clearly had an impact.
While the Stein-love is appreciated, it wasn’t quite as hot as the Schuhmann-love found in NBA.com’s rankings. John Schuhmann has the Rockets at no. 5:
The Rockets have won eight of their last nine games, a run capped by Saturday’s win in San Antonio, their second fourth-quarter comeback on the road in the last week. The injuries are piling up (Jeremy Lin is out at least two weeks and Chandler Parsons is dealing with back spasms), but their defense has been better, having held each of their last four opponents under a point per possession.
Expect those rankings to dip next week, because that’s what happens when you lose to the Jazz.