Sacramento Kings 110, Houston Rockets 106 – Just another bad loss

2013 ends tonight, and the Rockets have to be looking forward to it. The last two weeks have seen a slew of grim losses for the Rockets during an unforgiving patch of schedule. The Rockets were put through the wringer, and in the end weren’t able to hang on to win it in the last game of the stretch, a high-scoring but low-enjoyment affair between Houston and Sacramento. The Kings have been feisty as of late, and were able to beat the Miami Heat and then nearly upend the stalwart San Antonio Spurs, but the Rockets have managed to lose to the 13th seed Kings twice this season. With that dubious distinction intact, the Rockets head into the new year with a lot of questions and only a few answers.

The biggest question might be why the Rockets go away from working plans. When Houston began feeding the ball to Dwight Howard in the post, Dwight steamrolled the Kings, especially smaller defender Quincy Acy. The Rockets scored on three possessions straight this way, then later made no effort to go back inside to Dwight. Especially during fourth quarter crunch time, the Rockets could have used some higher percentage looks, and a chance to let the other players stand still for a moment, especially when the Rockets are still clearly feeling the effects of their recent busy slate of games. They had a win in their hands, but let it slip away, and it wasn’t the first time.

The most glaring, depressing statistic came at the free throw line, with the Rockets hitting a dismal 63.6% of their 33 tries. 12 missed free throws is glaring in a 4 point loss, especially when normally-capable Chandler Parsons went 2-6. The Rockets have fallen to a desultory 29th in the league in free throw shooting, and that will absolutely have to change. Most likely, the Rockets will pick that up once their schedule evens out and they haven’t played four more games than their opponents in the span of two months. Fatigue aside, the Rockets still need to punish teams for fouls, something which they haven’t been sufficiently able to do. Teams like the Kings are fast and loose with physical play anyway, and missing free throws only encourages more hard fouls every trip down the court.

One bright spot was that for one shining moment, James Harden got angry. After being called for a questionable foul, and incredulous Harden got a tech for being incredulous. For the first time in what seems like decades, Harden’s body language changed from sleepy to angry, and his play improved as well. He still let his man blow by him, but at least he waited to give up until after he had failed instead of before. His shots started falling and he started attacking the basket and chasing down rebounds. His double double line included 5-11 from three point range, a season-high 38 points on 26 shots, and 10 rebounds. He also threw in 5 turnovers because it’s not a Rockets game without a pile of those. Harden decided to go back to isolation ball late in the game when the Rockets became desperate, and the ensuing turnovers were little surprise.

Terrence Jones notched a double double as well, grabbing 11 boards and scoring 12 points on 10 shots, a few on impressive putbacks. His 4 blocks were most impressive, with one of them leading to him dunking on a fast break. Jones was one of the few Rockets who looked locked in and active at all times. Jones continues to be a huge revelation for Houston, as he’s an excellent fit for a team that needs athleticism and effort in the frontcourt. Without Jones, the Kings would have dominated even more.

There’s little good to take away from a game where the Rockets played decently on offense but couldn’t stop the Kings from walking to the rim at the other end. The Rockets are tired, confused, and disjointed, and a lighter January schedule will give them some time to try to come up with solutions. When the Kings are scrapping out wins on your home court, when lower seeded teams consistently push you to the brink, and assumed lottery teams like Phoenix are passing you up in the standings, it’s time to take some stock of things. The Rockets are ready to say goodbye to 2013. It’s been a long road full of great times, but 2014? 2014 is going to be much better.

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Sacramento Kings @ Houston Rockets on 12/31/13