SALMAN ALI

It's early, but Rockets defensive issues are concerning

Carmelo Anthony (and James Harden) are focal points in a bad defense. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After a polarizing offseason, most experts expected the Houston Rockets to take a significant step back defensively this season. This analysis was swiftly met by backlash from fans of the team and even Rockets brass. However, after just three games into the regular season, it does indeed look like there may have been truth to the criticism.

The Rockets, simply put, look disastrous on defense.

According to NBA.com, Houston is giving up an exorbitant 114.2 points per 100 possessions - good for 24th in the league. The same level of communication and execution that led to a seventh ranked defense last year has simply fallen off the face of the planet.

What once was an efficient system of clean switching and rim protection has eroded before our very eyes.

While it’s not totally fair to pin the blame on individuals when the collective output is this bad, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony stick out as roots of the problem. You don’t have to look at the numbers to draw this conclusion, but when you do, it’s staggering how bad they’ve been.

Houston Rockets Defensive RTG:

With James Harden: 118.6

Without James Harden: 92.5

Houston Rockets Defensive RTG:

With Carmelo Anthony: 118.0

Without Carmelo Anthony: 102.2

It’s one thing if these were players that weren’t integral to what the Rockets want to do this year or barely play any minutes. However, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony combine for 65 minutes per game, with usage rates of 29.9% and 17.6% respectively. The Rockets heavily rely on them for offensive production, particularly Harden. As a result, they have to be on the floor even with their defensive warts.

However, if the Rockets want to have any chance at true title contention this year, both have to get their act together defensively and they have to do it fast.

Watching game tape only highlights how bad both of them have been, especially Harden. To Harden’s credit, he had turned things around these past couple years and become an average defender. This year, it seems he’s reverted to old habits of falling asleep on weak side help, back-cuts, and ball-watching.

Take a look at this video of Harden letting Tobias Harris cut to the basket for an easy layup or  a similar play just a quarter later.

There are endless examples of Harden’s defensive lapses littered throughout the first three games of the season and it’s unfortunate, given the strides he’d made in that arena.

Anthony’s defensive issues come into form with reckless closeouts on shooters, a general lack of aggression, and the same issues with ball-watching Harden has.

As an example of this lack of force, here’s Anthony refusing to meet Elfrid Payton at the rim in transition, leading to the easy, uncontested layup.

Here’s are couple of plays of Anthony falling asleep on his man, one on Nikola Mirotic, leading to the easy two and one where Anthony half-heartedly defends Anthony Davis at the basket.

The bottom is line is both Harden and Anthony have been abysmal early on and the effort just doesn’t seem to be there. You can attribute the drop-off in defense to the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, but you would only be half right. James Ennis has done an adequate job of replacing Ariza as the Rockets are defending 10 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. Losing Mbah a Moute compounded with adding the negative defense of Carmelo Anthony and James Harden this season is really what’s hurting the Rockets.

Houston was able to get the very best out of negative defenders like Harden and Ryan Anderson last season and the fact that they haven’t been able to do that yet this year points to a possible institutional decline. Perhaps this is where losing Associate Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik just weeks before the season hurts. It could also be a general lack of interest after topping out at 65 wins last season and making it to the Western Conference Finals. It’s tough to quantify.

Whatever the case, the Rockets will need to turn it around fast if they want to be taken seriously. It’s still very early so this all may be presumptuous. However, the early returns aren’t encouraging and Houston can only fall so far behind if they want to obtain homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs like they did last year.

 

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Houston now trails in the fall classic

Astros fall in World Series Game 1 as Braves come out swinging

Framber Valdez had a forgettable start in World Series Game 1 as the Braves tagged him with five runs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a dominant end to win the ALCS and American League pennant, the Houston Astros welcomed in the National League champion Atlanta Braves for World Series Game 1 at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. With Houston favored to win not just this game but the entire series, the Braves shook up those expectations by finding early success at the plate to build a lead they would hold to take a 1-0 series lead.

Final Score: Braves 6, Astros 2

World Series (Best of Seven): Atlanta leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: A.J. Minter

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez

Valdez unable to replicate ALCS Game 5 success as Braves mount early lead

For the optimist, not having home-field advantage in an MLB postseason series affords you a benefit: you can score first and take captive momentum first in the series. The Braves did that against Framber Valdez, as Jorge Soler became the first player in league history to hit a homer in the first plate appearance of a World Series, putting Atlanta out to an immediate 1-0 lead. They would get another in the first frame, getting a one-out infield single by Ozzie Albies, who would steal second to get in position for an RBI double by Austin Riley.

Houston had the chance to respond in their first inning against former teammate Charlie Morton, getting a single and two walks to load the bases with no outs. They'd strand all three runners, though, as Morton made it through unscathed but having used 26 pitches. Atlanta kept putting stress on Valdez, extending their lead to three runs with back-to-back singles to start the second before later getting an RBI groundout.

Valdez gave up two more in the top of the third, once again allowing a leadoff single, this one setting up a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 Braves lead and forcing Houston's starter out of the game early. Yimi Garcia entered and was able to retire the three batters he faced to end the frame.

Braves lose Morton to injury as both bullpens begin long night

After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to keep the Astros off the board, Morton followed it up with a 1-2-3 second. He started the bottom of the third by retiring his fifth batter in a row, getting a strikeout of Jose Altuve. He would immediately call trainers to get him out of the game, though, as he would later be diagnosed with a fractured fibula, presumably from a ball that ricocheted off his leg in the prior inning, ending his season in a disappointing turn of events for the Braves.

That set up a long night for both bullpens, and next up for Houston was Jake Odorizzi. He started with a scoreless fourth, working around a two-out error to keep it a five-run game. The Astros began a rally in the bottom of the fourth, getting runners on the corners with one out on a Kyle Tucker double and Yuli Gurriel single. Chas McCormick brought in the first run of the board for Houston, but that's all they would get as Atlanta's lead remained four runs.

Astros drop Game 1

Odorizzi kept going on the mound, tossing a 1-2-3 fifth, then getting one out before a one-out single in the top of the sixth would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Phil Maton, who finished the inning. Maton returned in the top of the seventh, getting a strikeout before a double and a walk would result in the call to bring in Ryne Stanek.

A double play against his first batter allowed Stanek to finish the seventh, and then he returned in the eighth. He faced three batters that frame, getting one out before a walk and a single would put runners on the corners as Houston moved on to Brooks Raley. A sac fly by Freddie Freeman off of Raley made it a five-run lead again, but a leadoff triple by Yordan Alvarez in the bottom of the inning would set up Carlos Correa for an RBI, a groundout to make it 6-2.

Atlanta's bullpen continued to do well, though, limiting the damage to that one run in the eighth, then returning to hold on to the four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves the upset win to start the series. The loss extends their home losing streak in the World Series to five games (having lost all four at home in the 2019 World Series against the Nationals) and puts them down 0-1 and in need of a win in Game 2 to try and reset the series into a best-of-five.

Up Next: World Series Game 2 will be another 7:09 PM Central scheduled start time on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park. The expected pitching matchup is Max Fried, who is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three postseason starts, for the Braves, and Jose Urquidy, who went just 1.2 innings while allowing six runs (five earned) in his start in the ALCS.

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