ON THE ROCKETS

3 reasons for the Rockets slow start and why they will turn it around

Jeff Bzdelik's sudden retirement has caused the Rockets to make adjustments. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Tonight the Rockets will take on the Utah Jazz for the first time since ousting them from the playoffs in the second round last season. The Rockets’ chances of winning don't look great, and the possibility of falling to 1-3, maybe even 1-4, to start the season is a very real one. Patience, however, should be exercised before tossing this NBA season’s hopes into the nearest trash bin, as there are a number of correctable issues that have contributed to Houston's sluggish start.

1. Houston's assistant head coach retired a little over a month ago

Jeff Bzdelik is embodying the old adage of not knowing what you had until it's gone. Bzdelik was instrumental in Houston's rejuvenated effort on defense last season and retiring a month before the season started came as a huge blow. Now the Rockets are in catch up mode as the players and Bzdelik's replacement, Roy Rogers, look to play catch up and get up to speed. It's shown in the first three games, as Houston has failed to switched assignments as gracefully as they had last season, in addition to being absolutely pummelled inside the paint. This should simply be a practice and time issue that can be smoothed over. The question is whether it's fixed sooner rather than later.

2) New rosters need time to sync

Houston was forced into a lineup overhaul this offseason with the unexpected departures of forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. The result was the arrival of five new Rockets, with at least four of them slated for a legitimate share of minutes. A shake up of that size is bound to require a learning curve, and most team's have it figured out by December. That learning curve becomes even longer when my next point becomes an issue.

3) The Rockets are really banged up

The lineups you have seen head coach Mike D'Antoni trot out have been awful, yes. They also were never meant to be part of the plan. It was never the plan to have point guard Michael Carter-Williams start at small forward. No one honestly thinks that P.J. Tucker or Carmelo Anthony should or will continue to rotate in at center, but at the moment they will because they have to. All of these moves are out of necessity because the Rockets are incredibly beat up. Everyone paying attention to sports media at the moment is aware of Chris Paul's brawl-related suspension, but that will be over by Wednesday and barely scratches the surface of the issue.  At the moment, the entire Phoenix Suns trade return of Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss are sidelined. Knight was a virtual lock for at least 10-15 minutes a game at point guard, but complications from knee rehab have pushed him back to an undisclosed timetable. Chriss meanwhile should return soon from an ankle injury and add relief to Clint Capela and the front court. Veteran center Nene has also been out with a calf injury. Add forward James Ennis III's injury sustained Sunday that will have him sitting a few games and what you end up with is a laughably thin rotation to start the series.

The point is, reinforcements are coming, so hold tight. Patience this season will more than likely be rewarded, but if the Rockets aren't careful they'll be stuck in the unenviable position of playing catch-up in a loaded Western Conference.

 

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't ugly either. That just seems par for the course whenever the Rockets play the Pelicans. Regardless of injuries on either side, these two teams just always manage to play each other competitively, whistle to whistle. Houston pulled out ahead tonight, but it wasn't without a fight.

Jrue Holiday and Josh Hart in particular, did an excellent job defending James Harden tonight, forcing him to shoot 3 for 11 from deep. The Pelicans often swarmed Harden and forced him to give up the basketball. It helps the Eric Gordon is starting to find a rhythm from three-point range (4 of 7 tonight and 3 of 7 Saturday against Chicago). Westbrook was also forceful offensively to help pick up for Harden's early struggles.

Clint Capela has really stepped it up for Houston these past four games (11 points, 20 rebounds, and 2 blocks tonight on 5 of 6 shooting). Capela has managed to grab 13 or more rebounds in Houston's last four outings. Capela had struggled greatly to start the season, forcing head coach Mike D'Antoni to rely on smaller units with P.J. Tucker at center. However, the Rockets aren't going to go as far as they want in the postseason if they aren't getting a strong 30 minutes a game from Clint Capela, so it's encouraging that he's starting to play well.

The Rockets took a 7-point lead after a surge from Westbrook to end the first quarter and for the most part, held that lead for the duration of the game. New Orleans made a strong push in the fourth quarter the battle back, but at that point it was too little too late.

Star of the game: James Harden didn't have a the best three-point shooting game, but still managed to log 39 point, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in the process on 62.6% true shooting. He was effect at driving to the rim, drawing fouls, getting floaters, and finding shooters. Harden scored 19 of his points in the 4th quarter, effectively dragging Houston to victory despite a strong late push by New Orleans that cut the lead from 17 at one point down to as low as 6.

Honorable mention: Russell Westbrook was dialed in from the first quarter, particularly from mid-range where he scored 12 of his points on 6 of 8 shooting. In a night where Harden was really struggling to gain a rhythm, Westbrook really helped pick up the slack for Houston especially in the units without Harden. Westbrook finished the game with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals on an efficient 57.1% true shooting. It's unlikely Westbrook will shoot that well from mid-range this season, but on nights where he's on like this, the Rockets will gladly take it.

Key moment: Russell Westbrook's stretch to end the first quarter gave the Rockets a 7-point lead and the Pelicans were never able to capture the lead from that point forward. Westbrook scored or assisted on the final 6 points of the quarter (within 56.8 seconds) and was forceful defensively.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston to play the Los Angeles Clippers at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

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