Unfortunately, the show must go on

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets fall to Nuggets in Denver 117-110

Today was a obviously a really tough day for the NBA with the untimely passing of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. As the world prepared to mourn, NBA players across the country were placed in the difficult position to play a game that felt secondary and unimportant given today's events.

Unfortunately for both the Rockets and the Nuggets, this was a game with high stakes and the show had to go on. A very important tiebreaker was on the line and positioning in the Western Conference. On a human level, what both teams were able to do tonight was truly unbelievable. Every player on the court tonight grew up with Kobe Bryant in their life in some way, shape, or form and the same goes for coaches, media, and game officials. In a game like this, compliments and hat tips rule the day as it's criticisms are almost impossible to muster.

Frankly, with all the emotion and energy sucked out the building pre-game, it's surprising the game was as competitive as it was. Maybe it was the stakes, maybe it was the players knowing what Bryant would have wanted, maybe playing hard was a coping mechanism, or maybe it was some combination of the three. Whatever the case, this game was fantastic and it's unfortunate that it couldn't be enjoyed under happier circumstances.

Star of the game: Russell Westbrook continued his excellent streak of games by logging 32 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on 14 of 29 shooting from the field and 4 of 5 shooting from the free throw line. As with previous games, Westbrook stuck with attacking the basket or attempting mid-range jumpers and largely avoided the three-point line (one attempted). Westbrook will not play in Utah tomorrow due to rest.

Honorable mention: Eric Gordon had 19 points off the bench for Houston on 55.6% true shooting. Despite being only 2 for 10 from three-point range, Gordon was aggressive in attacking the basket (seven free throws attempted and made) and found a way to be an efficient contributor for the Rockets.

Key moment: If there was a moment the Rockets could have caught up and took the lead back from the Nuggets it was midway through the fourth quarter. Houston was down 93-94 at the 9:15 mark and allowed an 11-4 run which ended with Ben McLemore not closing out on Michael Porter Jr. before Mike D'Antoni ultimately called timeout. Houston was never able to recover from that.

Up next: The Rockets travel to Utah tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. to take on the Jazz.

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.4 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.3 (10th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4 (10th)

Biggest developments:

1. Big men defending Russell Westbrook

It's not surprising at all that Quin Snyder was the first head coach to throw an interesting wrinkle defensively at Houston's micro-ball unit. Let's not forget Snyder was the one who copied the Bucks by implementing the "Sit on James Harden's left hip and allow him to go right" strategy in the playoffs last season. However, having a big man defending a non-shooter isn't as revolutionary an idea. The Warriors had Andrew Bogut defend Tony Allen to great success in the second round of the 2015 playoffs to great success.

But Russell Westbrook isn't Tony Allen, so when Jazz big man Rudy Gobert took on the assignment in the first quarter, the Jazz didn't exactly get the results they wanted.

s3.amazonaws.com

While not new, it's definitely creative for teams like the Jazz to try this, but it's a better idea in theory than in practice. In theory, since Westbrook's best strength is attacking the basket, placing a rim protector on him and allowing him to shoot should neutralize him. In practice, this only gives Westbrook a head of steam going at the rim and puts the defender on his heels, unprepared for what's coming at him. It also doesn't help that it's Gobert's responsibility to monitor the rest of the floor and play a heavy amount of help defense (as shown in the clip), so he'll be a half-step late in recovering to defend the layup.

The same principle applies to Anthony Davis.

It'll be interesting to see if teams keep trying this tact or if they get even more creative and add a layer of sophistication to it.

2. Rockets starting to figure things out defensively

The Rockets have a 108.7 defensive rating over their last two games (good for 8th in the league in that span), which is actually 1.4 points per 100 possessions better than what they are on the season. If you take away Bojan Bogdanovic's ridiculous game winning shot from Sunday, that number is actually better. It may not seem like a big difference, but it's significant and also becoming very clear that switching is a defense that the Rockets are more comfortable with than the altered drop-back scheme they were working with for the past year.

The biggest reason for Houston's success? Forced turnovers. The Rockets are forcing 18.6 turnovers per game over their last 9 games, which is good for first in the NBA.

s3.amazonaws.com

By playing this small, the Rockets are making the very bold claim that they don't have be a good defensive rebounding team to be a good defense. The internal calculus is that they can make up the lost possessions with forced turnovers and in-turn, compete defensively. It challenges everything we've been taught about basketball, but it's why the Rockets are the must-watch team of the closing stretch of the season.

3. Backup center Thabo Sefolosha

Here's something I never expected to say at the beginning of the season: Thabo Sefolosha has become a pretty reliable backup center for Houston. Ignoring the past few rough plus/minus outings (which can be noisy), the Rockets have finally found a practical use for the defensive intelligence of the 35-year-old swingman. At the beginning of the season Sefolosha looked awful and it was starting to look like he'd spend his full season on Houston's bench. However, in this new role, Sefolosha looks reinvigorated.

s3.amazonaws.com

Officially, Sefolosha is listed as 6'6", but it's strange because in person (and on television), he looks much taller. It could be his hair, it could be his 7'2" wingspan, but whatever the case, he's found a nice role as the backup center to P.J. Tucker (what a wild sentence to type out). The Rockets are better defensively when Sefolosha's on the floor versus off the floor. He communicates well and just knows where to be and when to be there.

Week of games in review:

You never want to dismiss losses, but the Jazz game was just such an awesome game of two seemingly equal-matched Western Conference foes and the Rockets lost on a last-second shot. Apart from the Rockets allowing Jordan Clarkson to have his way with their defense in the second half, they played a strong game and just lost to a really good team in the end.

In the same token, you don't want to put too much weight on Houston beating the Celtics before heading off to the All-Star break either. Sure, it was an impressive victory, but you almost got the feel that Boston didn't play all of their cards until it was too late, specifically their small-ball lineup of Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. They also foolishly posted up Enes Kanter in the first half and got away from their traditional offense. The Rockets deserve credit for getting the win, but the Celtics also beat themselves in a lot of areas.

Questions for the Rockets after the All-Star break:

1. Can Houston make a run for a top seed in the West?

If the Rockets are going to be make a strong run for a top seed in the Western Conference, now's the time. In addition to getting nine days off for the All-Star break, the Rockets have the 7th easiest schedule remaining (.477 winning percentage) with 28 games remaining in the season. They clearly have a lot of room to grow defensively and you get the feeling they haven't reached their peaks as an offense yet.

Last season, the Rockets went 21-7 in their last 28 games with the second best Net Rating in the NBA (+10.4), so it's not completely crazy to suggest they may have another gear in them this season. They've started the craft their identity after the trade deadline, shortly before this break, which is huge. We know what the Rockets are trying to do and they've bought into it collectively. Houston currently stands two games out of the 4th seed in the West and three games out of the 2nd seed. Every game is significantly more important from here on out.

2. How soon do we Bruno Caboclo take the floor?

In addition to Eric Gordon, the Rockets also have Bruno Caboclo's return to look forward to after the All-Star break. Caboclo was dealing with a knee hyperextension before the break and is set to be cleared very soon. The Rockets traded Jordan Bell for the right to get another look at Caboclo over the next couple years, but they clearly like what they see as they've brought him into their program twice in the past eight months.

This question may have more to do with Houston's ability to get to garbage time in fourth quarters than anything else. It's unlikely Caboclo cracks the rotation at this point, but if he does, he will almost exclusively play backup center. Currently that role is taken by Thabo Sefolosha, but if Caboclo shows something in garbage time, this could get interesting.

He's one week away from possibly being one week away.

s3.amazonaws.com

3. Will the Rockets become an all-time offense again?

For the past few years, the Rockets have been breaking records in offensive rating under head coach Mike D'Antoni, but ever since they traded for Russell Westbrook in July, the've stagnated. Westbrook isn't to blame, but since James harden no longer has three quality shooters on the floor around him at all times, things have become a little more clunky.

They're still very good (113.5 Offensive Rating, 5th in the NBA), but they're no longer elite or record-breaking. They've really opened up their ceiling by going four-out before the All-Star break, it's just a matter of if they can return to their ridiculous norm. Right now Russell Westbrook looks great and really comfortable in Houston's spaced out offense and James Harden's starting to come back around after a brutal January, but it'll still be fascinating to monitor.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome