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Rockets’ defense takes step back amid loss to Pelicans

For a brief moment, the Houston Rockets held the league’s top defense. After a loss to the Pelicans on Tuesday, a three-game skid has regressed the team back into faulty habits. 

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Seventeen. It’s the perfect number that summarizes the Houston Rockets’ 130-101 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. No. It’s not 17 points nor 17 assists that contributed to the Rockets’ loss. It was 17 rebounds. But it did not come from 6’11” New Zealand native Steven Adams or sophomore sensation Zion Williamson. Instead, it came from Josh Hart — a 6’5: shooting guard.

Hart became the first guard to have at least 17 boards off the bench since Bonzi Wells achieved the feat with the Kings in 2006. In total, the Pelicans outrebounded the Rockets 65-46 — which included 18 second-chance points. But the mishaps that resulted in Houston’s third consecutive loss Tuesday night went beyond their struggles on the boards.

“I learned that if we’re not going to come with great defensive intensity, we are not going to win. With Christian [Wood] out, we need to band together as a group and concentrate — especially on the boards. To give up 130 points and 60 points in the paint is not a good recipe for winning. These two games have shown that our defense has taken a step back.” — Stephen Silas

Everything was good for the Rockets the last time they played inside the Smoothie King Center. Christian Wood’s 26 points led Houston to a 126-112 victory in New Orleans. They were riding high on a winning streak and possessed the league’s best defense with a 100.2 defensive rating while allowing 102.8 points per game. During their last game of that stretch, the Rockets had their best performance of the season with a 30-point victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Their franchise-setting 28 made triples encapsulated their play at the time. The Rockets averaged an offensive net rating of 115.3 while scoring 118.2 points per game. In the words of John Wall, the six-game winning streak had the Rockets drinking the water of success a bit prematurely. But after dropping four of the last five games, that water has become polluted.

The gritty defense that had the general public believing that the league’s new Grit and Grind era would take place in Houston had vanished. This defensive breakdown exhibits one of the main struggles the Rockets are having on defense — communication.

Although the Pelicans started the possession running in transition, the Rockets’ defense had a sufficient amount of time to recover had they communicated with one another. Once Lonzo Ball made the pass to Eric Bledsoe — a career 33.6 percent shooter from the outside — there was no need for DeMarcus Cousins and P.J. Tucker to close out together. The mishap led to Bledsoe finding Hart, who made the extra pass to Brandon Ingram to convert an open three-point field goal.

“Communication is easy. Just talk. I could see if we had guys who could not defend at a high level. That would be difficult. I feel like every time we are out there with our guards and forwards, they can all switch and guard positions one through five. We have to get back to the principles of listening. We have to do a better job with our communication. And that starts with me being the leader of the team as the point guard to get everyone’s intensity back up.” — Wall

This next defensive breakdown does not depend on communication, but more so the lack of help defense.

With Ball at the top of the key defended by Wall, this possession for the Pelicans should not have ended in an easy layup. Ball beat Wall off the dribble, which created an open lane downhill. Had Tucker stepped up to help with the penetration, Ball would have committed an offensive foul or turnover due to the force and speed how he attacked the basket.

Houston’s defense has plummeted toward the bottom half of the league during their six-game winning streak. They have obtained a defensive rating of 112.3 over the last five games and allowed their opponents to score an average of 113.4 points.

It goes without saying that the Rockets are missing Wood — who is sidelined due to a sprained ankle — more on the defensive end than on offense. Without Wood, it will have to take a team effort to replace the 10.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks the future All-Star would have provided the Rockets with all season.

But regardless if Wood is playing or not, there is no excuse for the Rockets' defense to regress this far. This is a team who took great pride in their ability to play defense at a high-level less than a week ago.

“Our defense has been Sh*tty the last two games. Communication has been bad and we have not been as aggressive as we were in the games before. Our communication has been horrible, and that is something we need to get back to if we want to win.” — Tucker