If you watched the Rockets’ season opener like I did, the first half was mostly filled with giggles of joy at watching James Harden already setting assists records while leading a vicious offense. Defense be damned, the Rockets were winning the way they set out to: unrelenting, ruthless offense led by the Beard.
In the third quarter, it started to wane. The defense looked even more listless as Jordan Clarkson erupted, and the shots just stopped falling. The Rockets finished the game 7-29 from deep — Harden went 1-7, Gordon went 2-8, Anderson went 2-7 and Ariza went 1-4 — and couldn’t muster much offense whatsoever in the fourth quarter.
When this Rockets team doesn’t move the ball and get in transition, it is going to lose, and it is going to lose ugly.
D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle are talented, no doubt, but a superteam they are not. They looked like All-Stars against the Rockets, particularly Randle, who looked like he was playing against YMCA players every time he was matchup up on Anderson or Nene.
All of that we already knew. Every decision the Rockets have made since the end of last season has been to make the offense better without regard for what it would do to the defense. But last night, the offense didn’t just suffer from bad luck. Down the stretch, the ball stopped moving (again). Instead of getting into the Rockets’ lethal action, Harden dribbled at the top of the key, and everyone else stayed where they were.
They looked tired. Clint Capela came out of the game with 6 minutes left and didn’t return. He played 26 minutes and looked gassed at multiple occasions. His stamina has been a strange concern in training camp. He was said to have been dealing with an Achilles injury, but he’s simply never been able to play long stretches.
The Swiss Roll added a bunch of muscle, and maybe skipped the cardio this summer. If Capela can’t be relied on to even get to 30 minutes most nights, it’s going to be a problem. Nene played well in the preseason, but he looked old and slow against Randle and Timofey Mozgov. The Rockets got killed on the glass with him in the game (they were slightly better with Capela, but not great). Hopefully it was just a bad game.
The fourth quarter malaise was not the same as last season. According to D’Antoni, they were tired. The Rockets “lost their legs,” he said. Harden played 29 minutes a game in the preseason and reportedly came into camp in terrific shape.
Jonathan Feigen wrote “there is a reason ‘midseason form is a thing.’ Maybe he’s right. But the D’Antoni style, and the Rockets’ punishing schedule, don’t allow for much time to round into. It would be nice to see it tonight against the Mavericks.