JOEL BLANK

Through three games, Rockets defense is invisible

Mike D'Antoni is looking for answers. Harry How/Getty Images

So Saturday night we had "Loogie Nights" in Los Angeles and a fight involving two of the best point guards of our generation in Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. It all started when Lakers string bean Brandon Ingram decided to push James Harden after a foul and ended with Ingram rushing the pile and throwing a haymaker at the closest red jersey he could find. The end result was suspensions as Ingram got four games, Rondo three games and Paul two games. What this fight did for Rockets fans was distract them from what has been a much bigger pain for the team than any fight or suspension. The real wound rearing its ugly head for Houston early this season is the team' awful defense and inability to stir rup even the slightest desire to stop their opponent.

If you are a basketball junkie like me, it's pretty easy to see where the Rockets shortcomings lie. The defense is a seive and opposing players run through it like tap water through a strainer. The team seems to think the best defensive strategy is outscore the other team and hope they don’t need a stop or get into a tight game late in crunch time. New Orleans took the Rockets to the woodshed by scoring inside, outside and on the break as they stunned the opening night crowd at Toyota Center. In Game 2 the Lakers were made to look like a well oiled machine that could get buckets anywhere and everywhere on the court, instead of a totally new group of players including several misfits from other squads.

In Game 3 the H-town 5 made this years version of the Clippers look like the squad that had CP3, Blake Griffin, Reddick, Crawford and company, instead of the bunch of recycled veterans and youthful exuberance that comprise this seasons team. The Clippers scored at will and attacked the paint throughout the game on their way to the upset victory that sent Houston home 1-2.

There is no team defense, rotating, helping or much switching. There is a ton of finger pointing and head shaking as everyone stands around and watches the layup line locomotive go steaming by. It has to change and fast if this team truly hopes to return to the Western Conference Finals and compete for an NBA title.

Ever since Mike D' Antoni took over the team, all of Red Nation knows their team can score with anyone in the league. Adding Carmelo Anthony to an already high powered offense led everyone to believe the scoring would possibly go up a season ago. The concern started to surface started back in July when Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute departed via free agency. Not a big loss most people said, because they weren't big contributors on offense and each fizzled out in the postseason. Ariza played steady ball all year and over his tenure with Houston, until Game 7 against Golden State. It was then that he joined the rest of his Rockets squad in losing their 3 point shot at the most important moments of the season. Mbah a Moute was MIA the entire postseason after an underrated regular season that had him deeply entrenched in a solid Rockets rotation. He was a spot starter that knew his role and stuck to it and that meant he went all out of defense. What everyone is missing here is that the two players were above average on-ball defenders and key cogs in Jeff Bzdelik's defensive unit that helped to shut down opponents and close out games.They were a top 6 defensive team that could get stops, grab rebounds and win games by doing more than putting the ball in the hoop. Speaking of Bzdelik, fans also are sleeping on how important he was in orchestrating one of the better team defenses in all of the NBA. He got his players to buy in and sell out on the defensive end and that was a huge accomplishment, considering the fact that James Harden and others had a 25 letter alphabet with no "D" in it before the coach arrived in Houston.   

Can it change? The answer is yes. Is there plenty of time to figure it out? Of course there is. Can Roy Rodgers get setted in as the new Defensive Coordinator and get his players to give it their all and commit to the teachings that he will subject them to? They better and they better start soon. Of course Daryl Morey is always tinkering with his team and can get on his friends and family plan of NBA GM's to try and orchestrate a deal or two that can upgrade their roster and its ability to get some stops, but not everyone has the kind of help they need and others aren't inclined to assist. Regardless of where we go from here, the fact is, the Rockets aren’t going anywhere in late June, let alone late May if they don't recognize the problem and start working on the toughness it's going to take to fix it. Toughness that starts in the middle of your chest and not at the end of a knockout punch.

 

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Rockets get another much-needed win. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets went on a redemption tour by beating the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks. But the most pivotal win was against the Mavericks as the Rockets finally showed their true potential. John Wall finally made his return from his injury hiatus and played with a lot of energy. DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon combined for 61 points. It was great to see Stephan Silas crack a smile as he was able to beat his former team.

The Rockets clearly missed Wall during his eight-game absense. This season, the Rockets are a .500 team with Wall on the court. Wall is the Rockets' floor general that leads, constructs, and also pushes his teammates to become better.

Wall only played 21 minutes in the 133-108 win over the Mavericks but still had eight assists. Even though Wall only had 7 points, his presence was still felt by finding his teammates for open looks beyond the perimeter. Wall made sure Cousins and Gordon got a plethora of touches. He called multiple actions, so they got open looks from three, which was mainly Gordon. Gordon and Cousins' struggles have been similar but with Wall on the court, they were successful against the Mavericks. According to NBA Stats, Wall posted a 111 offensive rating with the starters versus the Mavericks, which included Gordon and Cousins.

"He's the engine to this team. He gets everybody going. He makes the game easy," Cousins told a reporter after the game. "The pressure that he constantly puts on the defense is a tough thing to deal with."

Gordon has struggled all season long with three-point shooting and relied on his slashing abilities. Saturday night, Gordon made six three pointers against the Mavericks, which was 66 percent from beyond the perimeter. Gordon increased his three-point percentage from 31 percent to 34.5 percent after Saturday night's game. Gordon's 33 points came from being able to attack the entire Mavericks' defense. Willy Cauley-Stein didn't stand a chance against Gordon as he was burned multiple times. Gordon's been a lifesaver for the Rockets in the last two games, and hopefully he maintains his play.

Cousins played fantastic against the Mavericks scoring 28 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. This is Cousins' first double-double with the Rockets this season. Cousins became the vintage player from the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. It was extremely fun watching Cousins push the ball up the court and aggressively snatch rebounds. Boogie shot 50 percent from behind the arc by making four three-pointers. He was dominant inside the paint as Cousins went 7/8 from the restricted area versus the Mavericks. This was the game Cousins needed after having a poor performance against the Pistons Friday night.

"It was really, really good. He did it all. He's a physical presence on both ends of the floor," as Silas said on Cousins' performance.

David Nwaba and Mason Jones were big factors off the Rockets' bench by having a combined total of 34 points together. Nwaba has been great in transition for the Rockets the entire season. Keep in mind that Nwaba is returning from an Achilles injury he suffered with his former team, the Brooklyn Nets. Nwaba has became a great defender, slasher, and is averaging a career-high nine points per game with the Rockets. He finished with 18 points on Saturday night versus the Mavericks.

Mason Jones has become a fan favorite of the Rockets because of his confidence. Silas is loving the usage of Jones off the bench but wants to find more minutes for him. Jones had a breakout performance versus the San Antonio Spurs with 24 points off 66 percent shooting from the field. He continues to get better with his reads from the point guard position. Jones' knowledge of running the offense has helped his efficiency on the court. He is never afraid to take clutch shots in pivotal moments of the game.

"To have a young kid who can come in and not be afraid of the moment, that's big. That's a tough position to be in as an undrafted rookie. I trust him. It's a good problem to have," Silas mentioned after the game. "He's showing me he's ready. He's a confident kid, and he should be. That's why he's good. He's not afraid of the moment, at all. He can get us organized, run plays, and score the basketball."

Hopefully, the Rockets can sustain their level of play when Victor Oladipo returns against the Washington Wizards, Tuesday. It will be interesting to watch Oladipo and Wall play in the same backcourt.

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