Things haven't gone too well this past week or so. The Texans lost to the Fightin' Peytons, the Longhorns lost to some sort of clown college, and America's last, best hope was defeated by what I'm certain were nefarious forces. Oh, and the Rockets have lost a lot, and that trend pretty much continued tonight.*
For those who didn't see this particular exercise in frustration, here's how it went down: the Rockets were ahead for two quarters, and then they weren't. More specifically, the Rockets were able to build a modest lead on bench play before the second half started, when the Hornets were seemingly able to hit every shot they took. That's basically what happened in the last three games, so you'll pardon me I'm sure if I expand this recap into a discussion of what the hell is wrong.
The typical response to this sort of loss (and one that I suppose has dominated in the analysis of the previous games) is to blame late gameplay. Worrell and Drexler emphasized the Rockets' inability to get a last-quarter "stop." In truth, points that are scored in the first minute count as much as those scored (and allowed) in the last quarter. Our beloved announcers might blame play "down the stretch," but from my (admittedly amateur) observation, the Rockets' defense was pretty awful at the start of the game, too. Perhaps worse, in all honesty.
What I saw in the first few minutes of the game basically boiled down to a series of open shots given to the Hornets and a failure to close on shooters and get a hand in their faces. That's some pretty basic stuff, really, and I think it's demonstrative of some larger issues for the good guys.
The Rockets came into this game ranked last in defensive efficiency, having apparently decided to play like the Raptors last season. As we all know by now (though I guess Brian Colangelo doesn't) is that playing like the 2010 Raptors is a recipe for utter failure in all but the most forgiving of Eastern conferences.
This isn't exactly what we expected at the start of the season. We expected a rapid improvement in team defense. After all, Yao's back (and he's huge) and the team added some defensive talent at the 2-guard in Courtney Lee and it looked like Hill and Budinger and the rest were bound to improve. But what we've seen is the complete opposite, and it's not something I'm entirely prepared to explain. This is essentially the same squad that was run out in the last few months of the 2010 season, save for the sudden addition of Yao. And surely Yao can't be the problem (and, from what I saw, he seemed to be doing fine out there, or at least not really any worse on defense than he ever was, and he still seems to be the formidable help-defender we saw develop over the years), so what is it?
Perhaps it's just a matchup problem. Perhaps the Rockets have faced too many teams that can exploit their extreme backcourt defense deficiency, but I think the problem runs deeper. Scola's defense was never good, and he seemed to make several basic mistakes (not closing out; biting on obvious fakes) that he wouldn't have made last year. Hill's got energy and some measure of defensive ability, but he's not entirely as aware of the court as he should be. But, as I pointed out in the game thread, the problem isn't really confined to one area - the whole defense seems slow, unfocused, and undisciplined. I'm a firm believer in the doctrine that players are about a million times more important than coaches or confidence or whatever (something that makes Mack Brown's little tirades after games these days especially frustrating), but I'm hoping that this is something that can simply be worked out. It has to be.
Fifteen Down Some things that need to be addressed:
The Backcourt: The Hornets' starting guards put up 43 points. Jason Smith added another 14. So that's over half of the Hornets' points scored by (a) the 2nd-best player in the league (forgivable), (b) a guy whose name Worrell couldn't decide how to pronounce, and (c) Jason Smith, whom the Astros cut last year for sucking too hard even for Ed Wade's standards.
There's really no way I can overstate this point: the backcourt defense sucks really hard right now. It's some sort of awful... sucking... machine (damn you new SBN standards and practices guidelines!). And it was (particularly with Smith, just as we saw with the Lakers' guards on opening night) often totally unguarded stuff. Even Lowry and Lee coming in wasn't totally able to stop that (though I'd note that both of them finished the night in the positive for+/-), but it sure helped.
Aaron Brooks: I'll applaud him for understanding when he was cold and taking it inside, instead. That's great. I question our glorious announcers' belief that he needs to take it inside even more (he finished basically last in completion rates around the rim last season), but he was able to light it up inside occasionally tonight.
But the problem is that he hasn't exactly been running the team offense well, either. As the game wore on, he was increasingly willing to jack up some pretty bad shots, and that killed the offense. True, plenty of others (Lowry, Budinger) were complicit in that, but theoretically it's his job to slow it down and identify when the Rockets need to work for a basket. He was too much in that "attack mode," not really paying attention to getting the ball to Yao or whoever else needed the ball.
Kevin Martin: Great offense for much of the night, and I'll come out and say that I still think he's exactly the "star" or "closer" that we supposedly need. But the defense was just atrocious. Totally biting on pump-fakes and getting behind his man in the opening quarters. Those kind of mistakes are signs of playing stupid, not lack of effort or whatever. Just not thinking.
Luis Scola: Please don't kill me, Dave. Yes, he was good on the boards, but the combination of his typically-bad defense (particularly on West) and his awful shooting tonight is probably what killed the Rockets more than anything (if we take Speed and Trixie's defensive failures as a given).
Yao: Holy Christ just get the ball to him more. How many times do we have to say that each year? Sure, he's not shooting perfect but he got the job done against a tough defensive team.
The Refs: Seriously, cut it out with the freaking whistles. Xiane noted that, until the 4th quarter, the officials were averaging a little more than a foul per minute played. Nobody wants to see that. It wasn't unfair or anything, just stupid.
Here's the thing to remember: it is the first two weeks of the season. Things are not going well now, but neither is it the end of the world.
* - on the bright side, Dallas lost, and I no longer have to hear any more bandwagon Rangers fans ask how baseball works in the local restaurants and bars.