Houston Rockets 93, Utah Jazz 91: A new rotational change?

As I think we all know by now, the Houston Rockets’ season hinges on their ability to hustle and communicate on defense.

Well, after not doing that for about a 12 to 15 minute stretch from the second to the third quarter, things changed and the Rockets started to care on the defensive end. The result was that the Utah Jazz went from scoring 37 points in the second quarter to 33 points in the second half.

A lot of that just has to do with the fact that the Jazz as currently constructed, with injuries to Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and others, just are not a very good team. That they are still the eighth seed in the West is a testament to how bad the bottom of the conference is right now.

There were also some controversial officiating moments at the end, particularly this non-call that may have tied the game. But the reality is that for once, the Rockets played defense, stopped giving up boards, and clawed their way back from a 15-point deficit to win the game.

And a lot of that came from one rotational change.

I like Terrence Jones more than most Rockets fans, and have always been irritated with how so often he has been made out to be a scapegoat for why this team has not performed well.

But the last few games have been terrible, particularly Saturday’s performance against the Spurs, where Boris Diaw had 20 points on 8-13 shooting when San Antonio tore Houston apart in that terrible third quarter. And tonight looked to be more of the confused defense, failing to box out stuff which has defined Jones throughout this season.

That is, until Coach Bickerstaff yanked Jones out and put Montrezl Harrell in.

A quick glance at the box score may indicate that there was not much difference between the two, until you look at +/-. Jones finished tonight with a -4. Harrell was a +9.

There is a reason for that, and it comes right back down to the rebounding problem which has afflicted this team over this entire season. The Houston Rockets suck at grabbing defensive rebounds, and tonight against the Jazz looked to be no better. In the third quarter, the Rockets broadcast showed that Utah had 18 second chance points compared to 0 for the Rockets. Time and time again, you either had either the tall Jeff Withey just out jump Houston’s bigs, or Trevor Booker out muscle Jones to get the putback.

Booker may be able to out rebound Jones, who has always had some issues in his consistency and hustle. But Harrell is just one spiky ball of energy. Harrell’s mentality is so much like Beverley’s, who I do think despite everything should be the heart and leader of the Rockets, just like the Chuckwagon was even during the Yao era. Harrell doesn’t have the smarts to rotate properly as he missed some assignments, but he rotates hard and fast, getting from a driving Rodney Hood or Trey Burke to Jeff Withey or Trey Lyles and contesting the interior shot and rebound attempt.

Harrell of course has plenty of weaknesses which Jones does not. This Rockets offense struggles enough with two rotation big men whose offensive repertoire is not much than catch and dunk with Dwight Howard and Clint Capela. Adding a third in Harrell just worsens that problem, and no doubt increases the tendency of Harden isos.

Those were a disaster late in the fourth, as there was something like two or three straight attempts where Harden iso’d, had Harrell or Howard come up to him, and then try the pocket bounce pass only for it to be intercepted and create a Utah fast break. In fact, Houston had more offensive success then when they took the ball out of Harden’s hands and gave it to Jason Terry, who at least was willing to try to get to the rim.

The thing about Harden’s isos, about as problematic as they are, is that he is not bulling to the rim as much as he used to and is relying more on a stepback jumper. Note how the criticism of Harden as lacking a midrange jumper has disappeared as of late, because he’s using it more.

That is not a good thing. I can’t help but think of Vince Carter, who despite his reputation as the high-flying dunking machine came to rely more and more on his jumper in his final Toronto years and with the Nets. That didn’t help those teams, and the Rockets need Harden to continue to finish at the rim, get to the line, and continue to irritate every other fanbase in the league.

Also, in the latest example of well, interesting tactics used in Salt Lake City, a fan apparently tried to shine something on Harden when he was shooting a pair of free throws. Worrell and Bullard suggested that it was a flash camera, though Harden claims that it was a laser pointer.

The game did turn around at that point, so perhaps a kudo should be given to that Jazz fan.

At any rate, this season is almost halfway over, but as good as tonight’s victory was over our hated foes, it is clear that this Rockets rotation is still not settled. Decisions will need to be make quickly if this team is to settle down, fix the defensive communications issue, and make the run which we have been waiting for months now.

About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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