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The Rockets know they need to play better

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Houston hasn’t been playing up to their usual standards. The good news is that they realize it.

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s weird to say after a single loss to another playoff team away from the Toyota Center, but the Houston Rockets haven’t been playing well. Sure, the Minnesota Timberwolves were playing their first playoff game in over a decade, and their home court fans were absolutely ravenous for a victory, but the Houston defeat goes a little deeper than that.

As Xiane mentioned in his excellent piece, it’s been a little too long since we’ve seen Peak Rockets. The team hasn’t been in tip-top shape since a mid-March run that saw them defeat the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs and the Wolves in a week’s time. The good news is, the Rockets themselves realize this as well.

James Harden was asked by ESPN about the last time the Rockets were playing in their preferred rhythm, and his response was telling:

“It’s been a long time. It’s been a long time, but tomorrow is the perfect opportunity for it.”

Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni also called out his team for being off, which is the right thing to do because it’s the truth. He did, however, in typical D’Antoni anti-rest philosophy fashion, blame Houston’s lack of rhythm down the stretch and so far in these playoffs on the amount of time his regular lineup spent playing together to close the season. He told ESPN:

“I’d say the past couple months we haven’t played really well. That’s why I was worried the whole time about resting guys, doing this, getting out of rhythm. People say, ‘It doesn’t really mean a whole lot.’ Ehhhh, it does. Anyway, we are where we are. We’ll be fine. We’ll be OK.”

Despite the coach’s now well-known aversion to giving his guys some time off, I still think it was the right thing to do to rest guys down the stretch. The Beard was infamously run-down in last year’s postseason, and the year before, Trevor Ariza’s legs were so dead he was barely able to lift off the floor on his jump shot.

Those guys have played around 900 fewer combined minutes this season (about 400 fewer for Harden and 500 fewer for Ariza), and though you might not be able to tell through three games of underwhelming shooting for both players (Harden is shooting 40 percent, Ariza 32 percent), the additional rest is something that will reveal itself as the playoffs continue to drag on and the matchups get more physical and intense.

Where the Rockets really struggled in game three, however, was not so much their shot — their 36 percent from deep in game three was their best three-point shooting game of the series and right in the line with their regular season average — but on the defensive end.

The Rockets have been able to count on their defense to step up this season and win them games when the offense isn’t humming at its regular rate. It’s what propelled them to the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA Playoffs. But on Saturday night, they allowed the Wolves to shoot 50 percent from the field and go a white-hot 15-27 from three. The 121 points Houston gave up were their most points against since giving up 124 in a loss to the Golden State Warriors way back on January 4.

Thankfully, the Rockets seem to recognize this as well. Chris Paul has called out the Houston defensive effort on several occasion since Saturday’s loss, first calling the Minnesota long-ball “butt-naked” or completely uncovered.

CP3 continued to bring up the defensive effort even after the freshness of the defeat wore off, going on to tell ESPN yesterday:

“All in all, we’ve just got to come out tomorrow ready to play and be us. ... It starts on the defensive end. That’s when we can get out in transition.”

Paul also needs to step up his own game a little himself. So far, he’s been outplayed at the point by Minnesota’s Jeff Teague in two out of the three games in the series.

Harden also needs to be better. Though he’s been playing some good defense, his shooting needs a bump from its current 40 percent.

The Rockets are also reincorporating Ryan Anderson into the rotation. He showed signs of the Ryno we know and love in Game 3, going for 12 points in 18 minutes on 4-6 shooting. His presence and its effect on spacing should only improve chemistry.

Ultimately, the Rockets themselves are recognizing the faults we’re all seeing right now with our own eyes. Self-realization is a good thing. That makes Houston primed for a rebound game in tonight’s Game 4.

The NBA Playoffs have been full of the unexpected so far in this early stage. The Rockets heading back to H-town in a tied dogfight with Minnesota would be as unexpected as anything.

Houston has shown a bounce-back resiliency all season in correcting their mistakes from their losses. Let’s hope it continues tonight.