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Rockets fall to Blazers 117-107

Luster? Lacking.

Portland Trail Blazers v Houston Rockets
Not the man to blame tonight.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

I started this recap after the Rockets pulled within six late in the fourth, after trailing by roughly 13pts for the whole game. The team was in back the game, playing well for the first time in the whole contest. All it took was a couple of Trailblazer makes, notably from Carmelo Anthony in the corner, to seal the game.

In the litany of bad Rockets losses this season, this isn’t the worst. That honor goes to folding to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. Second might be the Miami game that the Rockets didn’t show up for. This one is bad, however, as this isn’t a Portland team that should be beating the Rockets at home this season.

The main problem is the Rockets are almost entirely dependent on James Harden being otherworldly. Tonight, and last night, he wasn’t. You can credit novel defenses. Take a step back. Harden has seen those literally all season, from the first game onward.

Special defenses, rugged defenses, gimmick defenses, all sorts of defenses, have averaged yielding around 38points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per night against Harden thus far. Until the calendar flipped to 2020. To start 2020, he logged big, but inefficient, numbers. Now it’s not even that. Tonight’s effort yielded 13pts on 3-12 shooting, 7 assists and 8 boards in 36 minutes.

In a better world Harden would have about 15 assists, but his Rocket teammates have trouble making open shots off the double team. Honestly, though, Harden looks flat, like he might be carrying an injury. It could be that the effort of fighting, every game, against team defenses geared entirely to stop him, one man, is wearing him down.

He needs more help from his teammates. Right now that’s not the fault of Westbrook, who had a good game at 31pts on 11-22 shooting, 2-5 from 3pt, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Normally if you told me Westbrook had that kind of night, I’d assume the Rockets won, because I’d assume Harden had scored 35+.

Not tonight.

I’ve long said that the Rockets are the NBA team that interacts least with the opposition, in terms of outcome. If they make their 3s, they win. If they don’t, they lose. Tonight proved that wrong. The Rockets shot 33% from three, even though you’d hope for better with so many wide open attempts. It was defense, and rebounding that doomed them. The league has answered the Rockets doubling down on smallball.

Clint Capela spent the game on an island, the only Rocket protecting the basket or even remotely capable of doing so. He’d constantly have to leave the rim to contest a driving Lillard or McCollum, who’d blown past a defender. Subsequently he’d either surrender a dunk to Whiteside on an easy wrap-around pass at the basket, or an offensive board to Whiteside or another Blazer who’d crash, knowing Capela would be out of rebounding position. When Lillard didn’t just straight up make a difficult shot, that is.

PJ Tucker clearly looks injured. Ben McLemore can’t defend much of anyone, and Danuel House has evidently been demoted, and is still spiraling downwards.

The Rockets have no answer to two bigs. They have no answer for one real big and two sort of bigs, if Tucker isn’t perfect. It was the same story against Memphis. Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony combined for 36pts on 14-26 shooting, 30 rebounds and a glorious single assist. Meanwhile the smallest mistake takes Isaiah Hartenstein out of a game for good.

The whole Rockets system is failing right now because Harden can’t carry the team every game. Despite a fine effort from Westbrook, there’s not enough else there, even with 20pts from Eric Gordon. If the Rockets can’t address their issues at whatever they’re calling SF and PF, this could be what to expect.

PS - Tired of recapping losses.



This poll is closed

  • 16%
    A weary, maybe injured, Harden and Tuckered Tucker.
    (46 votes)
  • 0%
    Variance isn’t always your friend.
    (1 vote)
  • 5%
    The only adaptation is in service of Plan A.
    (14 votes)
  • 17%
    Not enough defense.
    (49 votes)
  • 43%
    All of the above.
    (121 votes)
  • 17%
    No Luka.
    (48 votes)
279 votes total Vote Now