The Houston Rockets have to bounce back. It seems like they’ve had “bounce back” at the top of the to-do list forever, but they still haven’t really checked it off. The first Clippers game was disappointing. The loss to the ailing Lakers was crushing. And the Clippers swooped back in on Saturday to bring the running tally up to “extremely frustrating.” The Toronto Raptors are visiting Houston for a game on Monday, and they may be a target of opportunity for a Rockets team looking for convenient targets.
The Raptors have their own life issues to deal with, primarily that of finding a direction. Their new general manager, Masai Ujiri, comes with a grade-a pedigree and the uncanny ability to convince the teams to make trades they shouldn’t make. But even after dealing the allegedly-undealable Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks, the Raptors are sitting on a losing season early and don’t look to be on the way up just yet. Rudy Gay finally has eyes that work, but that doesn’t affect shot selection. DeMar DeRozan is a shooting guard without the shooting. The grapevine suggests that Kyle Lowry has begun to grumble again, a large part of the reason he moved from Houston to Toronto in the first place. These two teams both have something at stake when they meet up, but only one can win.
In all likelihood, that team will be the Rockets. Even though they clearly aren’t yet on the same level as the top-flight teams in each conference like the Pacers and Spurs, the Rockets are well above the playoff bubble teams like Dallas and Toronto. Of course, anything can and does happen in the NBA, but that’s exactly what the Rockets are reeling from. After a good second half in Portland and a good stretch against the Clippers, the Rockets have shown that it is, in fact, possible for them to be coordinated and successful. They also paired up those halves with scoring droughts and matador defense, so there’s work to be done.
Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are the golden boys of the Raptors faithful, and are both skilled big men with a lot of promise. Unfortunately for them, Houston sports a bigger, badder frontline of Dwight Howard and Ömer Aşık, two players who are well versed in defending anywhere on the court. Aşık in particular has shown himself to be a top tier post defender, and Howard is a defensive linchpin.
Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley, the latest kings ascendant atop the Houston point guard throne, get to meet the previous holder of that crown in Kyle Lowry. Together with Aaron Brooks, about five years of Rockets point guard succession will be represented on the court, and all parties will have a point to prove. Lowry is a tireless defender in the manner of Patrick Beverley, but with the downhill slope to the rim of Jeremy Lin. Lowry’s matchups will be a point of particular curiosity for those who have followed the bizarre litany of surprisingly good one guards from Houston.
Rudy Gay is making more money than James Harden this year. James Harden uses free throws and efficient shot locations to score piles of points efficiently, even when his field goal percentage is bad. Rudy Gay doesn’t do that. Rudy Gay shoots and defends. James Harden doesn’t defend very much. If these two players end up on each other, this could be the battle to watch. If not, it’ll be interesting to see who dunks more, DeMar Derozan or Chandler Parsons.
The Raptors are a beatable team, especially in Houston. The Rockets have more talent and more expectations. The Rockets also have to prove that they’re willing and able to use that talent in conjunction with intelligence and determination to win games. So far, we’ve seen varying levels of each. The Rockets have had some rest and had some time to think over what they need to change (spoilers: it’s perimeter defense). If the Rockets take this game seriously and put their backs into it, they might get the win they badly need right now.