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Rockets lose opener to Bucks, 117-111

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New hope and old bugbears.

Milwaukee Bucks v Houston Rockets
Don’t blame this man.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

So many questions, so many storylines fighting for attention. But there’s a new storyline in town: actual basketball.

This game featured a sincere attempt to build a rivalry between teams that will meet two times in the regular season. It’s an interesting test for both teams, particularly given the difference in styles.

So here is our first chance to see the New Look Rockets. The Rockets seem to be the team that changes its hairstyle more than any other, biannually. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, each new barnet looking for a fresh start in the city of fresh starts.

How did it look? Great for a half, bad for another half.

What was good?

The Rockets high paced, high player depth usage first half. The Rockets presented an dizzying array of shooters, cutters and active defenders. Tyson Chandler more than held his own against Milwaukees bigs. The Rockets held Milwaukee to 50pts in the first half. They gave up 67 in the second. Why the Rockets went away from their high-tempo attacking style in the second half baffles me. In the first half the Rockets looked like possibly the most dangerous team in the NBA. In the second half, they looked like a team that could shoot their way out of any lead.

Russell Westbrook. Yes, he was good. He’s not a perfect player, and he’s not going to suddenly turn into one. When the game was slipping away, though, it was Westbrook who kept the Rockets in it, mainly through sheer force of will. He finished with a stat line of 24pts on 7 of 17 shooting, 16(!) rebounds (none stolen or gifted), 7 assists, 2 steals and a block in 33 minutes.

Tyson Chandler. He looked great rebounding, defending, and cutting to the basket for dunks(!). A matchup with Milwaukee is his sort of game. That’s why he vanished in the second half.

What Was Bad?

Small Ball To The Exclusion of All Else. The Rockets shot themselves out of the third quarter, mainly due to the efforts of Eric Gordon who finished a shocking 4-19. Then they stubbornly stuck to smallball, while getting roasted by one Robin Lopez low-post possession after another, when trying to narrow the gap at the close of the game. If Ryan Anderson isn’t on the team for this precise situation, why is he on the team? Who was Milawukee going to switch onto him that would be so bad? Ersan Ilyasova? Wes Matthews?

Not attacking the rim because Milwaukee is a very tall team overall. They are, but if all the Rockets do is shoot, when Harden and Gordon are clanking, games can slip away. It’s not like they weren’t open, the shots just weren’t falling. It’s the same problem that has plagued them for several years.

Milwaukee’s stalwart defense of flinging themselves at the ground whenever they were about to get beat.

Fluffy EuroBunny Clint Capela around the basket. When moving off the pick and roll and dunking, Capela looked great. When operating by himself, he kept trying to flip soft shots in with A Lopez, or Giannis around. He needs to go up to dunk in the situation.

Thoughts and The Long View

It’s a make or miss league, and this was a make or miss game. Milwaukee, despite Giannis Antetokounmpo fouling out, made most of its late shots. They should have, most of their shots were easy, because the Rockets didn’t adapt, at all, to 1990s basketball from Milwaukee.

I flatter myself that I understand why Mike D’Antoni went with the closing lineup he used; it’s likely to be the closing lineup he’ll use in most situations, and those were “his guys”+Westbrook.

Sometimes I’d like to see the Rockets (as I think it’s an organizational position) coach for this game, this moment. I understand that the math indicates it’ll all work out for the Rockets if they stick with to their approach, but games aren’t large samples. Games are granular, and if you don’t have a coach there to make judgments, to have a feel for the situation, what is the coach for, exactly?

Honestly, I’m not terribly upset. This was an annoying loss, but not the listless horror show of early season last year. One problem I expect to see corrected was James Harden and Russell Westbrook doing their level best to be facilitators, passers, playmakers for others to the detriment of their own offense. Harden, who rolled through the pre-season like a cheat code, was suddenly passing up good attempts to pass, get the ball back and take a worse shot.

This game was a good early test for the Rockets. They saw how they could be great, and saw how they can lose against good teams, both in the same contest. If they’d blown out Milwaukee, which they threatened to do, except Pat Connaughton turned into Larry Bird for four minutes, they might start thinking they didn’t have things to fix, or to change.

The Rockets aren’t going to turn into SSOLROX in one game, but they did for one half, and that’s a good start. It’s a long season, and I hope to see the Rockets return the favor to Milwaukee in March of 2020.

One thing not to do? Let this be some sort of referendum on the Rockets, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden. The NBA media may push for it, but it’s not true. It simply can’t be at this point. Eighty-one games remain.

Poll

Thoughts?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Quite annoyed.
    (120 votes)
  • 10%
    Vexed.
    (48 votes)
  • 40%
    Mildly miffed.
    (184 votes)
  • 22%
    I don’t know, Luka tells me what to think.
    (100 votes)
452 votes total Vote Now