So Xiane has already broken this game down, and I highly recommend you read his take on this one. Luka Doncic is mentioned once or twice, I think. Fortunately for Houston, Doncic will not play due a sprained ankle he sustained on Thursday at practice
The Rockets finally return to Houston after what seemed like an eternity on the road but was really just a week. After a 2-2 stretch on a trip that included some tough matchups, Rockets fans should be feeling better about this team. However, the sour taste of the loss in Portland to close out the trip and the disappearance of the James Harden we’ve grown to know and admire have conspired to leave legitimate doubts about the viability of this team as a playoff contender.
First, the obvious: something is wrong with Harden, and it started before his thigh contusion in Minnesota. He is not the same Harden that is a perennial MVP candidate, and the sudden dropoff is concerning. Maybe the issue is physical. It’s possible that he’s dealing with several small ailments that have combined to make him appear mortal. Maybe there’s something personal going on. Either way, there is no way you can watch Harden over the last few weeks and come to any conclusion that isn’t along the lines of “Something’s not right.”
Second, the Rockets have decided that defense is voluntary all of a sudden. The oddest thing about the Utah win, despite the fact that it happened, was that the defense was cranked up to 11. Everyone gave complete effort on both ends and it was a sight to see. But the return of Harden and Clint Capela turned the defense to mush. And while Harden’s never been a good defender, he’s not so bad that he could be entirely responsible for the dud in Portland. Maybe the issue is Mike D’Antoni and his lame duck status. Maybe it’s that the assistants know that they’re probably gone too. Nevertheless, something has to change.
Finally, the hardest thing for me to come to grips with over the past month is that Russell Westbrook has been Houston’s best player since the calendar turned to 2020. As one of Russ’s biggest critics over the past five or so years, it’s been stunning to watch him start to play more Moreyball to the point of refusing to take three pointers. Even his jumpers are falling with more regularity. He’s been absolutely incredible and I never expected this when Houston traded for him this summer. If he can keep playing with this level of efficiency, Harden and Capela return to form, and the defense becomes just average, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.
I just don’t see that happening tonight against the Dallas Mavericks, a team that has enough weapons to take advantage of Houston’s poor team defense. The Rockets have a chance to turn this around, but I think it will get worse before it gets better. And by then, it might be too late.
Tip-off is at 6;30pm CT on ESPN