SHOOTING BLANKS

Rockets offense stuggles becoming a serious issue

Mike D'Antoni and the Rockets are looking for answers. Harry How/Getty Images

Houston entered Thursday night’s contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder looking to even their record on the season and start fresh after a forgettable 1-5 start. A gutty effort on Monday against a Pacers team with a 7-3 record produced an impressive 98-94 win, and hinted that the Rockets had begun to recompose themselves after their rough start. Oklahoma City - sans their all-world guard Russell Westbrook - turned Houston away at the door, however, handed the Rockets a crushing defeat, 98-80, and left them with more questions than answers.

The loss against an undermanned Thunder team not only sets the Rockets back in the standings - something Houston can’t really afford to do much longer - it also casts serious doubt on the Rocket’s chances this season of returning to the Western Conference Finals. Patience was exercised to start the season as the Rockets dealt with health and suspension complications. Once the highly-touted Chris Paul/James Harden duo finally returned to the court together, the wins followed along and Houston strung together a three-game winning streak. Those expecting the high flying offense that was put on display last season, however, have been disappointed.

In a season punctuated by over-inflated point totals as a result of league-wide rule changes, the Rockets have failed to break the 100-point plateau in four of their past five matchups. After last night’s brick-fest, the Rockets’ offensive rating has dropped to 103.9, good for 26th in the league. Their true shooting percentage is 52.8, which is better than only the Pistons and the Magic. This is the offensive territory Houston currently resides in. Last season they finished No. 1 and 2 in those respective categories league-wide. The Rockets are reeling.

Houston has been known as the team that fires off more 3-pointers than any other team in the league. It’s a sound philosophy when it works and you have shooters knocking down their shots. So far this season, no one has consistently managed to do so. Chris Paul, who signed a four-year $160 million maximum contract in July, is shooting 27.1% from three-point range. Gerald Green, a career 35.9% sniper, has been even worse at 26.3%. You could argue that they’re missing Eric Gordon’s contributions while he recovers from injury, but that’s simply not the case. Before Gordon sat with a hip issue, he was even worse with 23.6% from three.  It’s not just one person slumping, it is a collective struggle.

If you’re looking for answers as to why the Rockets offense has become so lethargic, look no further than just beyond the arc. Houston is No. 1 in the league in 3-point attempts per game. They are 25th, however, in 3-point percentage. The Rockets have lost their shot at the moment, and that’s alarming.

I understand that it’s just one loss, but this isn’t about one game. It’s about the continuation of a season long inability to do the one thing the Rockets are known for, which is launch 3-pointers. Houston’s 11-of-42 night from beyond the arc last night showed that maybe the Rockets aren’t in fact back. Maybe this just isn’t a good enough team as built. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if General Manager Daryl Morey starts finding new homes for players sooner than later. Houston is built to win, and win now. Right now nothing is going right, and the Rockets are running out of time to figure things out.




 

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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