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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Boston's two grand slams in the first two innings were too much for Houston to overcome in ALCS Game 2. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a win in ALCS Game 1 that had the prototypical fingerprints of this Astros team all over it, Houston returned to Minute Maid Park on Saturday, hoping to take a dominant 2-0 series lead if they could grab another victory. The Red Sox dashed those hopes very early, though, scoring eight runs across the first two innings to build the lead they would hold on to even the series.

Final Score: Boston 9, Astros 5

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): tied 1-1

Winning Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Losing Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Houston met with disaster to start Game 2

You couldn't have drawn up a much better start for the Red Sox or a worse one for the Astros in Saturday's ALCS Game 2. Luis Garcia met early disaster in the top of the first inning, allowing a leadoff double, then got two outs while issuing two walks to load the bases. That brought up Boston's designated hitter, J.D. Martinez, to the plate, and he delivered a crushing blow to Houston, launching a grand slam to put the Red Sox up 4-0 before Houston could even get to the plate.

After a scoreless bottom of the inning by his offense, things got worse for Garcia in the top of the second, as after issuing a four-pitch walk to start the frame, he would become the center of a meeting at the mound with trainers, ultimately leaving the game with an injury. Houston opted to bring in Jake Odorizzi for the emergency call to the bullpen, but things did not start well for him either. He would put two of his own batters on base with two singles, then gave up the second grand slam in as many innings, this one to Rafael Devers to double Boston's lead to 8-0, doubling down on Houston's disastrous start to the game.

Odorizzi rebounded with a 1-2-3 third, but with one out in the top of the fourth allowed a solo homer to Kiké Hernández, his third homer of the series so far. He would still get the job done of eating up a few innings, finishing the fourth, and retiring Boston in order in the fifth, giving Houston just four more innings to cover with the rest of their relievers.

Astros get a few runs back

Over that span, Houston did trim the lead by three runs, getting an RBI double by Kyle Tucker and a two-RBI single by Yuli Gurriel in the bottom of the fourth, making it a six-run game at 9-3. Their next reliever was Blake Taylor in the top of the sixth, and he would keep the score where it stood by sitting down the three batters he faced that frame.

The Astros threatened again in the bottom of the sixth, getting two singles to put two aboard, but would come out empty, sending the game on to the seventh, where Taylor would remain on the mound. He faced three more batters, getting two out while allowing a single before Yimi Garcia would come in to get the third out.

Red Sox even the series as it shifts to Boston

Garcia returned in the top of the eighth, getting through that inning despite a walk and hit by pitch, stranding both runners. Boston's bullpen kept Houston from getting any closer in the bottom of the eighth, then Ryne Stanek came in for the Astros in the top of the ninth. Stanek allowed a leadoff double, but with a groundout and double play, held the score at 9-3. Yuli Gurriel and Jason Castro did their part to keep the Astros alive in the bottom of the ninth, each hitting solo homers to make it 9-5, but that's as close as they'd come, dropping Game 2 to tie the series at one game apiece.

Up Next: The ALCS now moves to Boston for the next three games after a day off on Sunday, with Game 3 on Monday at 7:08 PM Central. While the Astros have named Jose Urquidy as their starter, the Red Sox have not yet determined theirs.

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