SALMAN ALI

The Rockets have to work towards competence before contention

Chris Paul's absence has hurt the Rockets. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After a surprising 1-4 start, the Houston Rockets have simply looked like a bad basketball team. Gone is the 65-win-juggernaut that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. They’ve since been replaced by a team doesn’t seem to have much cohesion on both ends of the floor.

“I just kind of feel like we’re disjointed. I feel like we’re not connected,” Rockets guard Gerald Green said at Rockets’ practice Sunday.

The core of the problem has clearly been their defense. According to NBA.com/stats, the Rockets currently sit with the the league’s fourth worst Defensive RTG. After tearing through the league last season with their switch-everything scheme, the Rockets look fairly directionless with their system this year. It’s possible they’re just less equipped to handle such a scheme as many theorized after losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute this summer, but the collective buy-in just isn’t there like it was last year.

“I think our communication is not good. We’re not communicating on the defensive end like we should,” said Green when asked what needs to change.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni toyed with the idea of abandoning switching altogether after Houston’s latest loss to the Clippers Friday night before backtracking a few days later. Last season, the Rockets switched with a purpose, the communication was excellent, and they played physical at the rim.

Here is a great video that demonstrates how great the Rockets defense was last year against the Jazz. As you can see, the Rockets ability to switch 1-5 gave teams nightmares as it nearly took away the ability to penetrate completely and forced offenses to take difficult isolation-based shots. The Warriors changed their entire offense from motion-based to isolation solely because Houston’s defense took them out of their system. This year, that discipline hasn’t been there.

“Our defense is just awful. We don’t have any continuity”, said coach D’Antoni Friday night.

To be fair to Houston, they’ve missed time from a lot key contributors. Chris Paul missed two games from suspension, James Harden has to yet to return from a Grade 1-Plus left hamstring strain, James Ennis is recovering from a Grade-2 hamstring strain himself, and Nenê Hilario recently re-aggravated his right calf strain and will be reevaluated in two weeks.

The Rockets are having the rely on rookies like Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark to fill bench roles that were previously occupied by veterans before injuries. That’s a tall order for young players that weren’t expecting to play much this season.

In addition to their defense taking a step back, Houston’s once dependable offense has not been anything to write home about, sitting at 19th in the league as things stand. While it’s certainly worth noting that Harden and Paul have missed time, the Rockets are missing an exorbitant amount of wide open layups and 3-pointers. Per NBA.com/stats, the Rockets are shooting 35.6% (third worst) on wide-open field goals and 32.6% on wide-open threes (fourth worst).

Houston’s spacing takes a huge hit when Michael-Carter Williams is on the floor and it’s glaring. The Rockets are 8.3 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Williams sits. The reason for this is defenders are completely sagging off of him at the three-point line to help on better offensive threats and Williams hasn’t been able to make them pay.

One positive thing that Rockets fans can take away from this start is that it’s unlikely that Eric Gordon continues to play this poorly. Gordon looks like a complete shell of himself right now. In the past two games, he’s averaging 10.5 PPG on 28.9% true shooting with a -20.4 Net RTG. Gordon doesn’t look mentally all the way on the court as he’s passing up open looks, missing layups, and hesitating far too much for a player of his caliber. It’s unlikely this trend continues, but the Rockets will need him to shake out of it quick, as the will need his production the next two games without Harden.

For what it’s worth, the Rockets don’t seem to be too worried about the offensive side of the ball. “We're going to be a really good offense. I'm not worried about that”, says Mike D’Antoni.

“We've just got to work hard for one another defensively and offensively, it'll come,” echoes Gordon at Sunday’s practice.

Until the Rockets fix a lot of their issues, they should not be considered serious championship contenders. For now, Houston should simply strive to be a competitive basketball team. If they achieve competence, the conversation can shift back to contention, but not a moment sooner. We’re only five games in and a lot can happen, but the early returns are extremely discouraging for a team that achieved so much just a season ago.

 

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Houston now focused on postseason

Altuve and Correa homer, Astros drop final regular-season game

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

With no playoff impact at stake if the Astros won or lost the game, Houston took Sunday's final regular-season game as a chance to get their lineup a few more at-bats before shifting focus to Tuesday's first game of the post-season. Here is a quick recap of the game against the Rangers:

Final Score: Rangers 8, Astros 4.

Record: 29-31, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Wes Benjamin (2-1, 4.84 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Chase De Jong (0-1, 14.73 ERA).

Houston's main bats get a final tune-up

Knowing they'd only have a couple of at-bats to work with, some of Houston's big bats took advantage, starting with Jose Altuve. He crushed a pitch in the top of the first, a solo homer to put the Astros in front 1-0. After the Rangers tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the second, Altuve started the third with a walk before moving to third base on a Michael Brantley single, which improved Brantley's season average to .300.

Aledmys Diaz would pick up the RBI on a groundout to score Altuve, putting Houston back in front 2-1. In Correa's last at-bat in the top of the fourth, he extended the lead to 3-1 with a solo home run of his own.

Rangers hand Astros a loss to end the regular season

After getting the early run against Chase De Jong, the Rangers would put together a big inning against him in the fourth. After two one-out singles, Rougned Odor would give Texas their first lead of the day on a three-run homer to make it 4-3.

De Jong would continue to struggle in the inning, getting just one more out while loading the bases, prompting a move to the bullpen to bring in Nivaldo Rodriguez to try and eat up more innings. The Rangers greeted him with a two-RBI single to extend their lead to 6-3 before ending the fourth. Odor would hit his second home run of the game in the bottom of the fifth, a solo shot to make it a four-run lead at 7-3.

Rodriguez allowed another run in the bottom of the seventh, making it 8-3. Diaz, who drove in a run earlier, would account for another RBI in the top of the eighth, getting Houston's third solo homer of the day. That would make it an 8-4 game, which would go final as the Rangers would win the regular season's last game.

Up Next: Houston's first game of the playoffs will be on Tuesday, with the start time and opponent TBD while the rest of today's games wrap up, and the schedule is announced. Regardless, the Astros are expected to begin that best-of-three series with Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA).

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