That’s the sound of air leaving the balloon the Rockets inflated with their encouraging pre-season performance.
Tonight’s Rockets looked very much like a team where only five players active for the game, and four who got minutes (Sengun, Tate, Green, Smith), had ever played a minute of regular season basketball together. All the rest had not. None had played a minute in the regular season for this coaching staff. That’s not an excuse for the bad play we saw, but I do think it matters. It matters in that it should markedly improve.
The Rockets sort of flipped the script on their performance from past seasons. For two and a half quarters they played pretty good defense, with some notable lapses. They outshot the Magic from three 12-34 (35%) vs 9-34. They had the same number of assists. They were also painfully turnover prone, and got demolished on the boards 56-31 and 16 offensive rebounds for the Magic versus 7 for the Rockets.
The Magic, for the most part, simply played harder, made fewer mistakes, and took the game to the Rockets, except for a period in the third quarter.
The Rockets started slowly again tonight. Part of it seemed to be unfamiliarity, and part of it was a series of foolish early turnovers from Jalen Green and Jabari Smith. The Magic took a lead they’d never relinquish.
Orlando ended the quarter up by nine points on some surprisingly great 3pt shooting from Franz Wagner early (3-3), most of his open looks resulting from defensive miscues by Jabari Smith Jr. The Good Wagner wouldn’t make another three pointer in seven attempts, but that was the margin of Orlando’s lead at the end of the quarter.
The Rockets played much better defense in the second quarter, holding the Magic to 25pts, but they could only manage 23 points themselves, a slight improvement from the dismal 20 they managed in the first quarter.
Amen Thompson came in as the second point guard in the first half to get Fred VanVleet some rest, and he immediately turned the ball over, and made one sped-up panicky mistake after another as Magic players attacked his dribble and bodied him whenever they could to slow him down. It worked, Amen looked awful early, like a shaken rookie, but I don’t believe that sort of thing will work for long.
They went into the half down eleven points. I imagine new coach Ime Udoka had something to say about the effort and the mistakes, because the Rockets started the second half like a different team, behind tough defense and a barrage of three pointers from Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks. The Rockets starters, primarily Sengun, Brooks and VanVleet shaved the Magic lead down to a single point.
Then the bench came in and the Rockets collapsed. There’s no other way to describe being outscored by 29 points over the next quarter or so. Certainly the Magic played well, but nobody on Orlando had a particularly special night, except Cole Anthony who went 8-12, and was for reasons best known to Scooter The Ref, allowed to jump and crash into Rockets rebounders at will.
There were essentially two major problems tonight. The Rockets want to play great defense, get rebounds and run, steal the ball, get extra possessions, play big overall. The Magic want to more or less do the same thing. They have, believe it or not, a bunch of young players who can more or less do that, and are as big or bigger than the Rockets at almost every spot, with similar bench players. They also have a far more competent bench at present, especially as Jonathan Isaac was actually playing and playing well.
Second, while Brooks and VanVleet had good games, they really aren’t meant to be the Rockets primary scorers, and they really can’t be if the Rockets are going to win many games. Jalen Green looked frankly terrible tonight, going 2-10 shooting, with 1 rebound, 0 assists, 1 steal, 1 block and 4 turnovers. Jabari Smith also looked terrible, going 3-9, 0-4 from 3pt range, with five rebounds, 1 ast, 1stl and fouled out. Banchero and Isaac are maybe not good matchups for him, but he’s going to have to deal with matchups like that.
All in all a pretty deflating night of basketball for the Rockets, but it’s far to early to give up in despair. It really is an almost all new team, with an all new coaching staff, and they must learn a new system of both offense and defense, as well as figure out what rotations will work. That’s going to take time.
Alperen Sengun was essentially the only good, young, Rocket in the game tonight, as Amen had a rough introduction to the NBA, but was starting to look a lot better in the second half. (Contrast that to the Magic, where they only played their big rookie PG, Anthony Black, when the game was well in hand.)
Some have commented that the Magic simply looked better, despite playing a lot of recently drafted players as well. That’s true. Unfortunately it feels like the young Rockets are basically starting their careers over. (With the exception of (Turkish pro and league MVP) Alperen Sengun (14pts/6-11/8rbs/6ast/1TO).)
When I wrote, often last season, about it being fine to tank and rebuild, that these years were still precious to player development, and weren’t simply a write-off because the team intended to be bad, this is what I meant. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith might in some respects be considered almost rookies. Jalen needs to learn to play intelligently within the bounds of a real offense, and Jabari needs to learn to play in any offense at all.
I also will note that the Celtics team Ime Udoka took over, and also took to the NBA Finals, started 4-6, and 19-21 for their first 40 games, and then went on to win 32 of the next 42. That team had far more developed talent, but also higher aspirations. They’d been coached by Brad Stevens, and knew how to play already. Ime and Co have a lot of teaching to do with the Rockets.
Don’t despair. We really won’t know much for at least 20 games. We can hope things look better than this, though, much sooner.
Get well soon, Tari, we need you.
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