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State of the Rockets: Losing streak snapped, Russell Westbrook's tear, Ben McLemore's dropping minutes, and more
Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):
As of last week:
Offensive RTG: 113.3 (4th)
Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)
Net RTG: +3.9 (9th)
As of this week:
Offensive RTG: 113.5 (T-4th)
Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)
Net RTG: +4.1 (8th)
1. Rockets snap losing streak at 4 games
There are few things more dark and scary in the NBA than when a title contender goes on an extended losing streak. It may not be as dark as a possible career ending injury, but it's definitely near the top of the list. The team becomes a part of the national discussion in the way it doesn't want to be, fan bases get ornery, and nervous whispers of about the head coach become a thing. It's the natural order of things of a team with high expectations.
To put it in less subtly, if Houston hadn't snapped their losing streak by now, there might have been a different number one for "biggest developments" this week. It was important Houston get two wins under their belt just so the dark cloud isn't hovering over them.
2. Russell Westbrook continues his January tear
The only positive development during Houston's losing streak is Russell Westbrook finding his rhythm within Houston's offense. Granted, a lot of it has come out of necessity as you'll see in the next development. However, given how shaky Westbrook has looked during parts of the season, this is still a good development for Houston.
Russell Westbrook in January:
58.0% True Shooting
A big reason for this bump in efficiency may be the dramatic shift in Westbrook's shot profile. In January, Westbrook is only taking 2.4 threes per game - less than half of what he was attempting per game last season (5.6). This is too big of a development to break down in a couple of paragraphs here, so I'll be writing more about Westbrook later this week.
3. Uhh... James Harden?
At the time of writing this, James Harden is listed as questionable to play on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets due to a bruised left thigh contusion. Harden injured it in the game against the Timberwolves and elected to play, but effectively took a third row seat to Russell Westbrook as he was cooking ('back seat' is not a good enough term to describe how much Harden ceded the offense). Due to the injury, Harden was predictably awful (12 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 turnovers on 3 of 13 shooting from the field, 0 of 6 from three-point range, and a plus-minus of -7).
However, even before the injury, Harden's not been himself as of late. While Westbrook has flourished in the month of January, Harden's had a bit of a downturn.
James Harden in January:
35.6% from the field
25.2% from three-point range
Harden's still getting gaudy boxscore numbers, but he's lacked his usual uber-efficiency. His three-point stroke has completely alluded him and Russell Westbrook had had to become Houston's superman for them to even have a chance in some of these games. He'll probably be fine long-term, but it might not be the worst idea for Houston to rest him at least once on the upcoming road trip along with Westbrook. Harden is playing the most minutes per game (37.0) of his career since 2015-16 (38.1). The Rockets had mentioned there would be a rest plan for both Harden and Westbrook, but so far, it's only applied to Westbrook.
As mentioned in the last 'State of the Rockets', Harden's also taken a step back defensively recently and that has not changed. Perhaps giving Harden a rest game will yield more maximum effort games and aid his shooting efficiency at the same time.
Week of games in review:
Houston understandably got killed for dropping that game to the Oklahoma City on Monday, but they had honestly played three quarters of really solid basketball. Like a lot of games this season, it was one quarter that killed them. Houston allowed a staggering 41 points to the Thunder while only scoring 20 of their own. Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroeder absolutely had their way against Houston's defense (combined for 76 points on 25 of 53 shooting from the field).
The Denver game was one of those "It could get really dark if Houston loses this" games. With no Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, or Michael Porter Jr., that was a complete 'give me' game for Houston that they could not afford to lose. Fortunately, the outcome of the game was never in doubt and Houston managed to force it into garbage time in the fourth quarter.
The Minnesota game wasn't pretty for Houston, but again, it went in the win column and that means a lot for Houston at the moment. It was also uncomfortable to watch Shabazz Napier, Karl-Anthony Towns, and James Harden all have scary injury moments in the game. However, Harden's injury also contributed to what will go down as Westbrook's best game in a Rockets' uniform to date. Westbrook logged a fantastic 45 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds on 16 of 27 shooting from the field and 13 of 13 from the free throw line. Westbrook won't always have games like this, but when he does, it's definitely important to appreciate the heights he can reach as a player.
Questions for the coming week:1. Will James Harden sit out against the Nuggets?
The injury may not be that serious, but it gives Houston the opportunity to give Harden a quality rest game before having to close out a tough road trip. It may also help him work through his shooting slump. The tricky balance will be deciding when to rest Russell Westbrook on this back-to-back if Harden does indeed take the Denver game off. Considering he's not listed on the injury report, the obvious takeaway would be that Westbrook is going to play in Denver and rest in Utah, but this only gives Houston one available superstar for each game (assuming Harden sits in Denver).
Utah and Denver are tough opponents (at altitude) and both have cases of being as good, if not better than Houston this year.
2. Can Houston secure the tiebreaker against Denver?
The Rockets currently have a 2-1 season series lead over Denver so upcoming game will be for the tiebreaker. This is really important as both teams will likely be jockeying for positioning in the West all season long and if Houston can grab it, it gives them a leg up at the end of the season if the team records are even. Denver also just lost to Houston on Wednesday and will presumably have a healthier rotation to throw at Houston today.
3. Will Danuel House or Eric Gordon steal the starting spot back from Ben McLemore?
It's gone under the radar, but Ben McLemore's minutes have slowly been ticking down for almost two weeks now.
@ Memphis - 38 minutes
vs. Portland - 24 minutes
vs. Los Angeles - 24 minutes
vs. Oklahoma City - 20 minutes
vs. Denver - 18 minutes
@ Minnesota - 16 minutes
Ben McLemore has been a nice find for Houston this season, but his promotion to the starting unit was always a bit bizarre. Mike D'Antoni justified it as a way to get Austin Rivers more minutes and a way to slide Danuel House in at backup power forward to get P.J. Tucker some rest, but only the former has been true. Starting lineups don't matter as much in the NBA anymore, but having a lineup of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Ben McLemore is asking to get back-cut to death. Also, a starter is still traditionally supposed to be one of the team's six most important players, which McLemore is not. Gordon and House are both better players, and more importantly, better fits.
It'll be interesting to see if D'Antoni decides to pull the plug on this lineup.