By: Paul McGuire
I really don't know what is there to be said about the Rockets that has not been said already.
We know what the problem is. At the core of this team is one single problem that has propelled this team from the Western Conference Finals to its current state. It is this problem which has killed the Rockets in pretty much every loss this year. And it is this problem which caused Houston to lose tonight to the Atlanta Hawks even while Houston shot 54 percent from the field and 55 percent from three-point range.
I am, of course, talking about the defense. Bad perimeter defense leads to drives in the paint. Drives in the paint lead to Dwight Howard or Clint Capela coming in to protect the basket. And from there, either the perimeter player makes the layup over them anyways...or the player misses, but now Howard is out of position and cannot get the defensive rebound.
That was the story of tonight's disappointing loss in a nutshell.
The obvious thing to do is to just talk about James Harden and call it a day. The Dreamshake talked about how Harden is the "Rockets' 'core problem' and how his lackadaisical defense sets a poor example for the rest of the team ( I do have my issues with what Mr. Rothstein wrote, but that is neither here or there.)
But tonight's result cannot be just laid at Harden's feet. Harden spent most of the game guarding Kyle Korver, who went 0-11 from the field. It is not like Harden locked down Korver, who has had multiple surgeries in 2015, is shooting just 34 percent from three-point range over December, and was badly missing wide open shots by the end of this game.
The point is that Harden's man did not burn the Rockets tonight. On the perimeter, it was Jeff Teague and Kent Bazemore who scored a combined 48 points. Teague burned Ty Lawson and Patrick Beverley repeatedly throughout this game, just driving past them after performing a few dribble moves.
But a lot of it is just because even now, 33 games into the season, these guys are not on the same page. This is particularly notable given how much the Rockets love to switch on defense. There were at least two defensive possessions against a switch and roll where both Rockets players swung back towards the rolling big man, leaving either Teague or Bazemore completely wide open.
Even the final possessions of the game, where both Houston and Atlanta had a tied game and one chance to score, summed up the defensive difference. While Horford managed to get a fairly wide-open layup, the Rockets were confronted by a swarm of Hawks defenders despite several passes and kick outs.
And of course, there was the rebounding issue again. Late in the fourth quarter, Budenholzer implemented the Hack-a-Howard/Capela strategy. The two big men kept hitting one free throw out of two. While one point per possession is not optimal, the problem was that Houston did not get a single stop even though they had the advantage of not needing to worry about transition defense. Or rather, once Atlanta missed a shot in the halfcourt offense, they just got the rebound and scored anyways.
For an entire four-minute stretch over the fourth quarter, the Houston Rockets failed to secure a single defensive rebound. Not one. When you play defense like that, it is a wonder how the Rockets were able to secure the lead for the vast majority of the game.
The offensive execution is largely there. I think it is safe to say that Ty Lawson is no longer a LVP contender like he was just a few weeks ago. He had quite a few great passes and is hitting both open jumpers from mid-range and long distance. As Clyde Drexler in his great wisdom observed, Lawson will do better once he plays to his strengths.
The first half, where it looked like Houston would pummel the Hawks under a ridiculous offensive barrage, was one long stretch of alley-oops and three pointers after another. That in a way would prove to be Houston's undoing. Atlanta adjusted to defend the alley-oop in the second half, and the Rockets spent large stretches of the third quarter trying to force lobs which were just not there. But for a while, it worked and looked absolutely dazzling in the process as well.
So, the Rockets are back under .500. And they get to play the Golden State Warriors on New Year's Eve, then rematch against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday.
I think most of us have accepted the reality that this team is not going to win the championship this year, nor would they make the playoffs in past years in the Western Conference. But those lowered expectations do not make disappointments like tonight any better.