Sometimes it’s hard to find a good way of bringing you the same information, the same result, against (annoyingly) the same team, several times in a row. Rockets fandom, if not the Rockets themselves, seems to be at a crisis point. The Rockets record stands at 10-27, when it feels as though it ought to be about 14-23. The last game was summed up by Eric Gordon stating there had been “no improvement” since the start of the season in the team.
Tonight the Rockets seemed determined to prove that assessment wrong. They started brightly, came out with energy on both offense and defense. Dallas came out looking as though they expected to win this game simply because they showed up. They can be forgiven for thinking so, as their last game against Houston, way back in 2022, December 29th, 2022, and before that, ages ago, on December 23rd, 2022, they had a pretty easy time of things.
Tonight the Rockets offense saw players move on offense, cut off the ball, and teammates find them on those cuts. The Rockets initial plan on defense, send help on Doncic, try to gum up his forward motion, and dare the rest of the Mavs to beat the Rockets, seemed to work. Houston scored twenty-six to Dallas’ eighteen in the first period.
Dallas got back in the game in the second quarter, with Christian Wood playing well after Alperen Sengun left the game after ten minutes in a sparkling first quarter, but didn’t return until seven minutes into the second period. All the same, despite Dallas scoring a lot more, the Rockets kept pace, and managed to outscore Dallas by two.
The two teams went into halftime with the Rockets leading by eleven.
The second half saw Luka Doncic going to his most reliable move, over and over, the free throw. I guess having to watch the incessantly-whiny Doncic grift his way to wins for Dallas is some sort of karmic punishment for all the titles the Rockets didn’t win with James Harden. To be fair to Doncic, who probably would complain, and look truly, heartrendingly, aggrieved about gravity or sunshine, if he thought it might get him a free throw, he did raise his hand when he committed an intentional foul. That sort of integrity counts for a lot on a Dallas team.
The Rockets seemed to lose the focus they’d displayed in the first half. As the Mavericks brought the score closer (from an eighteen point Rockets lead) the Rockets offense ground back into its usual motionless rut. Passing around to a bunch of motionless guys who are marked by defenders isn’t going to generate a good shot. You can also see the youth of the Rockets, as they will pass up a decent look in hopes of a better one, when in point of fact, that look was the best of the possession. Typically, the longer the dribbling and perimeter passing goes on, without motion, the worse the attempt will be. Tonight was no exception.
Compounding the problem was Alperen Sengun’s foul trouble (on some exceedingly soft and dubious calls), and then strange usage when the game was slipping away. Who cares if Sengun might foul out, if the Rockets are well on their way to losing with him on the bench? What does saving him gain? He seems able to stay in games with fouls on him, anyway.
It’s difficult to understand why the Rockets kept him out when the game was slipping away, and why they put him back in, with a timeout available, when they needed a three point shot to tie the game late. Certainly, his missed two key free throws that could have kept the forlorn hope of “fouls and threes” alive, but why was in he in for shooting?
All of this feels almost useless to talk about, as this is a team that from coaches to players can’t seem recognize and keep advantages of any sort, nor correct for problems in real time. A team that doesn’t know how to feed the hot hand, or set up a play to get a certain teammate a shot, absent an ATO call.
Eric Gordon was hot tonight. He shot 4-6 from three, displaying the “unlimited range” he sometimes has. He got 12 FG attempts in 33 minutes.
The Rockets approach feels mechanical. Certain players get certain minutes at certain times almost irrespective of what’s happening in the game. As if this was a veteran-heavy team, where capabilities, roles, leadership and development are all settled things, and the best thing to do is let them just punch the clock and figure out how to win. The Rockets are almost the exact opposite of that sort of team.
People may read this as a criticism of Stephen Silas. Honestly, I don’t want him fired, I want him to be better. I want him to be the coach we’d hoped he’d be when he was hired. He’s probably struggling with grief right now, and I can say from experience, it affects decision-making. Toughing it out isn’t helping him, or his team. Maybe a little time away would be good for him and the Rockets?
Meanwhile, we’re left with an inexplicable game, a loss that probably should have been a win. What about this game slipping away suggested an extended run for Garrison Matthews? To be fair, he only took two shots, not necessarily terrible shots like usual, in his 12 minutes. Instead, he basically did nothing except get beat on defense, over and over, as Dallas clawed their way back in, and took the lead. Matthews recorded two missed shots, and two fouls, in twelve minutes. Is there something he offers that Eason (16 mins), Martin (20 min) or Josh Christopher (DNP) doesn’t?
Why do the Rockets typically go with three centers in a rotation, even when their best center is out? And if so, why did they in the dying minutes of the game go small? Going small actually worked on defense, but the offense remained its usual shambles. They have two excellent smallball center candidates who pretty much never play smallball center.
Why do the Rockets run great plays out of timeouts, and almost literally at no other time? Why do they make themselves so easy to defend?
I don’t have the answers, and at this point, I begin to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of questions.
First Sentiment-o-meter of 2023
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Ask me after more recovery beers.