Well, so much for that. One day after we praised the Rockets for tightening up their defense to levels not seen since last year, which resulted in a 5-2 start to the month of March, the Houston D laid a total egg last night in a 122-106 loss against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Rockets' defense was a step slow from the start, as they fell behind in the first quarter yet again, 35-26. They allowed the Clippers to shoot 64.3 percent from the field in the first half and were pummeled into giving up 72 points by halftime, the most L.A. has scored in a half this season. The Clippers finished the game with a shooting percentage of 56.6 percent, including 40 percent from downtown.
The ugliness doesn't stop there. The 122 points the Rockets gave up was the ninth time this season they've given up over 120 points. As a comparison, the Rockets gave up 120-plus points in the regular season last year just twice. Slippage indeed.
If that wasn't bad enough, their final team defensive rating of 133.4 was not only their worst number of the season, it is their worst single-game team defensive rating since November 25th, 2009, when they finished with a 136.7 in a 31-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
It was a total team collapse, but the front court, in particular, was especially bad. Dwight Howard finished the game with a defensive rating of 136, and one game after dominating the paint against the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies, was taken to task and abused by DeAndre Jordan. Jordan finished with 23 points on a perfect 8-8 shooting to go along with 16 rebounds (and 2 blocks). Howard finished with just 6 points and 7 boards in 32 minutes of action, and generally looked disinterested, slow, and mentally checked out. Anyone think Dwight returns next season?
Clint Capela and Donatas Motiejunas only played 7 minute each, as the Rockets used a small-ball lineup to try to overcome the huge early deficit, but neither one was effective when they did play, and both finished with a team-worst 139 defensive rating.
The back court wasn't much better, as they too, allowed the Clippers to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Patrick Beverley did finish with a team-best 125 defensive rating (yikes!), but he was mostly overwhelmed by Chris Paul, who finished with 15 points and 16 assists, including 8 dimes in the opening quarter.
Rocket-killer J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Austin Rivers combined for 51 points and drained 9 triples, while turning the ball over only two times total between them. In fact, the Clippers finished with just 10 turnovers overall, a disconcerting development considering the Rockets had been forcing an average of 18.7 turnovers per game in the month of March before this horrid performance.
At least the Rockets are taking personal responsibility, as James Harden told ESPN's Calvin Watkins:
"We just weren't in sync from the beginning of the game. Personally, myself, I had a terrible game offensively and defensively. It wasn't going well for me. I guess it will be like that sometimes. They got a rhythm early, J.J. Redick got going early, and whenever he gets a good start, they're a really good team. It's hard to come back from a 21-point deficit."
The Rockets do have a chance to get back on track, with a very winnable home game coming up on Friday against the 22-46 Minnesota Timberwolves. It's a potential "get right" game, as long as Houston has put their early-season habit of playing down to their competition completely in the rear-view mirror.
As for me, well, I've learned a lesson here, and I learned it the hard way: this is not a team to be praised defensively, even after a fairly positive 7-game sample. I'm just setting myself up for a letdown. Sadly, the letdown continues to be the prevailing theme of this increasingly forgettable season.