Mike D’antoni often talks about the team finding the right spirit to compete. It can seem pseudo-religious, and we all have our basketball superstitions (The Basketball Gods, Ball Don’t Lie, yelling “Kobe” when we throw trash at a trash can, etc). Tonight, in Orlando, the spirit definitely evaded the Good Guys. The Rockets lost despite multiple opportunities to put this one away, eventually yielding to a late Orlando run despite being up ten with eight minutes left in the fourth. From that moment on, the Magic went on a 26-9 run. The final score was Magic 116 and your Houston Rockets 109.
The narratives coming out of this will center on Harden going 1-17 from 3, despite his ending with an enviable stat line: 38 PTS, 9 REB, 12 AST, and 4 STL, and 15 of 16 from the charity stripe. There will be talk of Harden shooting us out of the game, and it may be deserved. Losing by seven in a game where he missed 16 threes, especially where some of those shots were clearly forced as he felt the game getting away from him in the fourth, is downright Westbrookian. Still, the good far outweighs the bad with Harden, and though his struggles from three will be the main story, there are two other narratives worth monitoring.
First, this team’s depth is suspect, despite how it looks on paper. Tonight, Nene, Brandon Knight, Eric Gordon, and Chris Paul were all out. The minutes load on the starters is Thibs-like, with Harden playing 43, the trio of P.J., Clint, and Austin Rivers playing about 37, and only Danuel House playing a reasonable 30 minutes. The bench scored only 8 points total. Green’s shot was off. Ennis looked erratic on defense and lost on offense. Clark was timid playing the four behind Tucker, and Marquess Chriss’ minutes at backup center were bad. In the first half, Chriss repeatedly showed hard on pick and roll defense and tried unsuccessfully to get back to the roller in time, but Vucevic made short work of that (he was a real bright spot for the Magic, ending with 22 PTS including 3 of 4 from 3, 9 REBS, 6 ASTS, and a steal).
But aside from Harden’s poor shooting night and the thinning bench, the trend most worth noting is how often this team plays down to the level of its competition. The Rockets are 15-10 against teams over .500 this year for a winning percentage of 60%. That’s third in the league behind Denver and Toronto. Against teams below .500 this year, the Rockets are 9-8, for a winning percentage of 53%. That seven percent different may not seem huge, but that winning percentage against the under .500 teams is the worst of any team currently in the playoff picture.
You don’t have to squint very hard to see how the playing down against the dregs of the league was behind the Rocket’s slow start to the season. Coming off of last year’s Game Seven emotional letdown, the Rockets walked into this season with a confidence they had earned the year before. Until the recent tear, the performance on the court hasn’t matched that confidence. Make no mistake, this team has real on-the-court issues with depth and teams beginning to tailor defensive schemes away from the mid-range since they know the Rockets aren’t shooting them outside of CP’s pull-ups and fall-aways. But this team’s biggest struggle has been finding the spirit to compete and properly respect the challenge of besting a team of professional basketball players for 48 minutes when they can’t imagine facing them in the playoffs. If they keep failing to find that spirit, these Rockets might not be there themselves.
The Eye Test
Today’s Eye Test is focusing on Danuel House’s driving. Since joining the team, he has been a force in transition, but today we began to see him opt to drive more in secondary action. Perhaps it is teams beginning to respect his three pointer, which has been falling recently. It is certainly helpful to diversify the offense when he is willing to put the ball down for two dribbles and get to the rim or make a smart pass. Without Eric Gordon in the lineup, there is no one else to curl off picks at the top of the key and get going downhill. Let’s keep an eye on this tomorrow night against Memphis.