THE ROCKETS REPORT

Win streak comes to an end, but Rockets still roll through 3-1 week

James Harden and Chris Paul said goodbye to their winning streak. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Another week down, another week of dominating performance from the Rockets. After dismantling the Thunder and Bucks, Houston’s latest winning streak met its end at 17 games against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night. The Rockets would quickly recover, rest MVP candidate James Harden, and obliterate the Mavericks on Sunday afternoon. In spite of the loss, Houston increased its conference lead against the Golden State Warriors to 1.5 games and maintains the best overall record in the NBA.

Game 63: Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder (W, 122-112)

Houston fans were looking forward to this rematch since the end of December, when the Thunder defeated a Rockets squad sans Harden. At full strength, Houston weathered a turnover-riddled first half while maintaining a healthy lead over OKC. Harden was less than polished, commiting 10 turnovers on his own. Chris Paul picked up the slack, however, leading the team with 25 points overall. Harden finished with 23, while Ariza finished with 15 of his own.

Game 64: Rockets at Milwaukee Bucks (W, 110-99)

With their winning streak reaching 16 games, the Rockets arrived in Milwaukee the following night to take on another playoff eligible squad. Much like the night before, however, a seemingly competitive matchup turned into yet another cruising victory. The Rockets looked more than anything as if they were just going through the motions while they maintained a double-digit lead for most of the game. Harden led with 26 points, and Eric Gordon followed with 18. Chris Paul chipped in 16 and 11 assists.

Game 65: Rockets at Toronto Raptors (L, 108-105)

After a day of rest, the Rockets headed north of the border to extend try and even the season series against the Raptors, while keeping their streak intact. From the outset, Houston found itself in what has lately become unfamiliar territory: trailing in a game. Not only were the Rockets trailing, they were basically being run out of building. With Toronto’s lead ballooning all the way to 19 at one point, Houston knew it needed to get to work. The second half of the game saw a much more focused Rockets squad, and Harden set to work chipping away at the Raptors’ lead. Clutch shot after clutch shot drew Houston to within one point with 10 seconds left in regulation, but a pair of key free throws from Toronto sent the Rockets home with a broken streak. Harden finished the night with 40 points, while no other Rocket scored higher than 14.

Game 66: Rockets at Dallas Mavericks (W, 105-82)

The Mavericks didn’t deserve to be the Rockets’ next opponent, following their first defeat since late January. Whoever Houston played was going to bear the brunt of a frustrated and refocused Houston squad, and even with Harden resting Sunday afternoon Dallas was easily outmatched. Gordon covered for Harden’s absence, leading the team with 26 points, while Paul added 24 points and 12 assists. This was the fourth and final matchup against Dallas this season and the win made this the second year in a row that Houston has swept the Mavericks regular season matchups.

Looking Ahead:

Monday the Rockets will see the Spurs at home for the third matchup of the season between the two teams. Following that, Houston hosts the Clippers on Thursday before heading out on the road next weekend against the Pelicans and the Timberwolves.

The Spurs have proven to be an easy out this season, but I’ve seen too much of Gregg Popovich's sorcery over the years to ever feel 100% confident with any San Antonio matchup. The Clippers should be an easy win, unlike Saturday’s contest against New Orleans--provided Anthony Davis plays. The Timberwolves have been outclassed by the Rockets all season, and this season series finally should prove no different. In all, I expect Houston to continue churning through their schedule to close out the last few weeks of the regular season.


 

Things are not going well, even when Paul and Harden are both healthy. Tim Warren/Getty Images

Sometimes sports do a great job of making people look silly. Take, for example, last week when I predicted that the Rockets would go undefeated this week. With a slate of just near .500 or below teams, a fully healthy Rockets squad, and a group that had just recently embarrassed San Antonio and Chicago, it seemed like a safe call. What I've learned from the past three games, however, is that there is nothing predictable about this Houston Rockets team, as constructed.

Instead of a sweep, the Rockets were swept.

Tuesday night the Rockets were completely dismantled by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Leading 62-48 at the half, Houston imploded and followed with a 29-55 second half. James Harden would lead the Rockets as usual with 29 points, but beyond himself and Capela's 24 points, there was zero support as the next highest scorer was Eric Gordon with 10. The loss dropped Houston to 11-12 for the season.

Thursday gave the Rockets yet another opportunity to climb back to .500 against an equally underperforming Utah Jazz team. It looked as though fortune was swinging Houston's way when Utah's defensive anchor, Rudy Gobert, earned an early ejection, but instead it seemed that the send off galvanized Utah fans and Jazz alike. The result was a very thorough dusting of the Rockets, behind a 24 point, 10 rebound performance from Derrick Favors. Houston saw five separate players in double digits, but none higher than Harden's 15. Houston shot 8-36 from 3-point range as they fell to 11-13 on the season.

Saturday the Rockets traveled to Dallas for a quick rematch following last week's blowout defeat. It looked like Houston would finally be off the schneid until the dad-bod himself, Luka Doncic fired off 11 straight points to leapfrog the Rockets late in the fourth. Doncic would finish with 21 points against the Rockets. Harden would once again lead Houston in scoring with 35 points and 8 assists. Chris Paul followed with 23 points and 8 assists. Their third straight loss would drop the Rockets to 11-14. After 25 regular season games, Houston is now 14th out of 15 Western Conference teams.

Short on Excuses

Until now, there's been an easily explainable reason behind Houston's slow start. At first it was a matter of missing either Harden or Paul. Then it was a matter of health. Then their defense. And then their poor shooting.

The issue now is that every one of those excuses is null. The team is as healthy as it's been this season. Rockets' defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik has returned to the sideline. Houston's offense remains rated one of the best in the league prior to this week.

There comes a point in the season where, despite the team's potential, you have to begin to judge a team based off of their record. And at this point in the season, Houston just doesn't look good.

Looking ahead

Houston had their chance to notch a few victories and they squandered it. Now they get to face the meat of the conference, with matchups against the Trail Blazers Tuesday, the Lakers Thursday, and Memphis Saturday. What you have there is competition against the 5th, 6th, and 7th seeds, which doesn't bode well after being stomped by the 11th and 13th seeds just this past week. Nothing about the Rockets makes sense anymore and until there's any semblance of inspired play, I don't expect Houston to win any of these contests.



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