The Houston Rockets fell to the Atlanta Hawks at home, 104-97, on Friday night, falling to 19-7 on the season and losing their second game in a row.
The Rockets didn't have newest members Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved, who were held up by Troy Daniels' incomplete physical. They might have helped, but the Rockets went 19-6 without them and (largely) without Troy Daniels. They didn't go 19-6 looking like they have no legs left despite a day off the previous day.
James Harden scored 18 points and dished out 14(!) assists, Dwight Howard had 19 points and 11 rebounds with 5 assists, but the defense was not there from anyone all night. Donatas Motiejunas had just 8 points and 7 boards and Howard, Harden and Trevor Ariza all played 40 minutes or more.
The Rockets were down by as much as 16 in the second quarter, and Harden missed all of his field goals in the first half. The third quarter finally saw the offense pick up -- particularly from The Beard -- and the fourth quarter went back and forth before Kyle Korver's dagger three with 1:29 to go. That made the game 95-90, but the Hawks made all but one of their free throws down the stretch, and the Rockets never got closer.
The refs didn't help the Rockets either. They repeatedly screwed up calls, and always favoring the Hawks. Even SB Nation's Hawks blog Peachtree Hoops admits it.
Everyone on the Rockets looked sluggish from the get-go. The Hawks got so many easy layups it was just ridiculous. Part of that was Atlanta's offense; all of their players are threats from at least 18 feet out (Horford's the only guy on the whole team who can't shoot threes), so Howard and Donuts were forced to follow their guys away from the rim. When Harden, Terry and (on occasion) Patrick Beverley were beaten to the rack, there was no support. And it happened frequently.
The loss comes in the second game of what I called the gauntlet yesterday. It's six games against the very best teams in the NBA: the Blazers on Monday (a game we all have circled), then the Grizzlies, Spurs and Wizards. The Rockets are at full strength but they have been playing their worst basketball of the season at the wrong time.
At what point do we continue to see players put up poor shooting numbers and no longer assume a regression to the mean? How many games do the Rockets have to shoot 39.5 percent from the field before we say they're simply not a very good shooting team?
Maybe it's just always going to be a slightly flawed stat because of the proportion of three-pointers the Rockets take, a naturally low-percentage, high-efficiency shot. Beverley and Ariza each attempted 9 three-pointers yesterday, Harden shot seven and Jason Terry shot 10 (he hit four, and we'll take 40 percent from deep any day).
It's strange to see Terry and Beverley as the best shooters on a team with Trevor Ariza and James Harden. Beverley also hit four, Trevor hit three and Beard hit two. We're not in the Rockets' heads, but Ariza and Harden look tired. They're averaging more minutes than just about anyone in the league. Brewer and Shved will be active on Monday. The Rockets need them to come ready for this stretch of games, or they might just fall out of top tier of Western Conference teams by New Year's.