The Houston Rockets failed to climb back up to the .800 mark in the season, and now have fallen behind the Portland Trailblazers to the fourth seed in the west. After putting every bit of their backs, all their elbow grease, and a hell of a lot of moxie into an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets, the Rockets came home to find the New Orleans Pelicans laying in wait and ready to take advantage of a truly fatigued team. The return of Kostas Papanikolaou wasn’t enough to take this team over the top, despite heading into the fourth quarter with a lead.
The Rockets couldn’t hit shots. The team was only 38% from the floor and 24% from behind the arc (but a respectable 78% from the stripe, somehow). Their layups were rolling out, jumpers were rattling out, and tired legs led to sloppy play on more than a few occasions. Houston’s starters have been carrying a heavy load, and carrying it for an extra five minutes of overtime turned a challenging game into an episode of American Gladiators. The normally anemic rim defense from New Orleans metamorphosed into the paint protection one expects from Anthony Davis and Ömer Aşık. It was a great game from the Pelicans, and a gutty loss from the Rockets.
Trevor Ariza is the bellweather of this Rockets team, a workhorse who toils between the seams to seal up all the cracks. When his shots are falling, when his passes are connecting, and when he’s in lockdown defense mode, the Rockets are nigh-unstoppable. When he’s playing 40 minutes a game and looking gassed at all times, the Rockets struggle. It’s not just that he’s important to the team, he’s also a barometer of how much the team has had to exert itself in games, and lately that’s been a lot. As players get back from injury and leave, as whatever potential trades unfold, the Rockets will normalize and will start to gain the luxury of conserving minutes for starters. Until the blowouts and bench performance comes back, Ariza will have more games like tonight, an evening in which he had more shot attempts (12) than points (12), a night when his 8 rebounds and impressive 4 steals didn’t lead to many Houston points.
Nothing led to many Houston points as the Rockets shot 4 more times than the Pelicans and had 5 fewer buckets. Beverley had 9 points on 8 shots, edging out Dwight’s 17 points on 15 shots for most efficient starter. Harden missed 15 of 23 shots and the less said about Motiejunas getting shut down by Anthony Davis, the better. The effort was there, but the energy was not, and the Rockets still had a three point lead at the end of the third quarter thanks to Troy Daniels.
On a related topic, Troy Daniels got some real minutes and made a bit of noise. Someone has to spell James Harden when he needs rest, and Daniels hit 3/4 three in those 16 minutes. His defense is still a mess, but his shooting is the only thing the Rockets care about, and it’s beautiful when it’s on. The rest of the bench was less impressive. Canaan had only 4 points and an assist, but also didn’t get much of a chance to shine in only 11 minutes. Tarik Black was super efficient, with 5 points on one attempted shot, but that woudl have been much more useful if he had done it twice. Dorsey and Papanikolaou combined for 6 points on 7 shots.
Harden tried his best, but it just wasn’t enough. He looked like half the player he was the previous night and only went to the line 5 times, a paltry sum for him. He joined the more shots than points club with 21 on 23 though his 7 rebounds and 5 assists were solid, and his 4 turnovers weren’t much worse than average. He couldn’t buy a call, he went 2-7 from deep, and he just looked wiped. Howard looked better, but was still smothered inside all night long. 17 and 13 is a perfectly good line from him, but it could have been much better had he not missed a number of post moves, put backs and layups. New Orleans has a powerful frontcourt tandem, and a slight struggle is hardly surprising.
The bad news for the Rockets is that they need to get more from their bench if they want to manage minutes more effectively and grab a higher seed. They’ve been solid in back-to-backs so far, but chickens are starting to come home to roost, and leaning on the starters to the tune of 40 minutes a game simply isn’t sustainable. The coaching staff will have to pull something from the bench, something which is perfectly doable now that players are returning to the lineup. The good news is that once the playoffs come around, there won’t be any more back to back games, there will be more rest, and the minutes can go up. Until then, the Rockets have to find was to keep from running on empty.