First, allow me to apologize for the string of losses I’ve recapped. Really, though, blame Pacific Standard Time, as I’m on it, and most of TDS writers aren’t, and so don’t want to recap late games.
Since 2017-18 I’ve known that the Rockets were on the wrong side of The NBA Narrative*. The Rockets were there for the NBA’s Golden Boys to win the boss fight, and then smirk for the camera.
I thought perhaps that changed when The Evil Pirate Black Beard, I mean James Harden, sailed away, and the SS Houston sunk into a three year abyss of terrible basketball and ostensible rebuilding. The Rockets have been refloated, and are playing coherent, tough, defensive-minded and relentless basketball. They’re a young, fun, attractive team to watch, if you enjoy that sort of thing.
The Narrative has not gotten this message.
When I saw the Rockets had a West Coast trip that was LA Clippers, with Black Beard The Pirate, LA Lakers and Golden State, with the trip being three games in four nights, and a B2B in The Embayed Area, I thought it might be trouble, but the Rockets might win one, maybe two, games.
When I realized that every single team the Rockets would play was on a serious losing streak, and that those teams’ NBA Famous People outnumbered the Rockets NBA Famous People by approximately 11 to 0 I became morose. I thought the Rockets would not only have to play three games in four nights, would not only have to deal with teams desperate to stop losing, but would have to also defeat the Narrative, I despaired.
That turned out to be the appropriate reaction, almost.
The Rockets could have, should have, won the first two games, against the Clippers and Lakers. It took last second magic, 40 minutes of 40 year old Lebron (ok 39 almost) and some real mistakes by the Rockets, to lose those two.
In the three losses the Rockets opponents of NBA Famous people shot 43 more free throws than the Rockets. The Rockets lost all three games by 12 combined points. Tonight Golden State shot 33 free throws to the Rockets 19. This despite the Rockets scoring 56 points in the paint to the Warriors 18. So the team that actually attacked the basket, played inside, shot a lot fewer freebies than the team that shot jumpers. Which is exactly what you’d expect.
Now, Golden State shot well from 3pt range tonight, unlike pretty much every other game they’ve played all season, Steph Smirky excepted. That’s going to make them very hard to beat at home. They made nearly 50% of their three point shots, and they took 43 of them. And still, the Rockets were close. On a back to back. On the road. In past years, the Rockets would have suffered a blow out, rather than losing a close one. The Warriors shot well enough to win, but that shooting wouldn’t have been enough without a 14FT advantage, garnered as is customary, without scoring in the paint.
(To be fair, the Lakers deserved their advantage, as they attacked the basket with force.)
In another meeting with a former Rocket, Chris Paul also pretty much had his best shooting night of the year. His game which was once really pleasurable to watch as he cooked big men with his dribble has declined about 40% from it’s peak. Paul, being clever, has replaced the decline with cheap shots, nasty fouls, and flopping. Which makes him really unpleasant to watch these days, as he complains as much as ever.
Klay Thompson must hate Rockets jerseys, as games against Houston are pretty much propping up his season stats at this point. One time Process darling and revolutionary NBA draft pick Dario Saric and his fabulous facial hair also had a good night. I think Dario has found his forever home, a place where falling down is always rewarded, because he falls down a lot, whether people are near him or not. Saric just falls down when he runs, or jumps, or shoots, or dribbles, or tries to catch something, or bends over, or looks up.
So the NBA Famous Player teams that really needed a win got a win, and the Rockets got some moral victories.
Who knows, maybe none of this stuff is true? It’s just it’s such a depressingly familiar story to Rockets fans, and it very much seemed to all unfold according to the narrative.
All that said, I think the Rockets are on the verge of changing the tune. Maybe no one knows Alperen Sengun is a star, but he is. Today. Not soon, today. Tonight he scored 30 on 13-23 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds, dished 5 assists and had a steal and a block. He got constantly mauled inside, but only really shot FT on what amounted to deliberate fouls by Golden State.
Fred Van Vleet continues to shoot poorly, but assist like a god - 14ast to 0 TO. If Fred can find his historical shooting rate, the Rockets offense looks a lot better.
Jabari Smith is stringing together good performances. Tonight’s was 7-13 for 17pts with 10 rbs, 2ast, 1stl, 2blk. If he’ll just shoot the three on the catch, in rhythm that number will climb above 20pts with good efficiency pretty easily. We’re so used to being down on him, we don’t perhaps see the strides he’s making.
Tonight also saw something very unusual. Jalen Green had a poor first half, and a somewhat better third quarter. He sat the entire 4th quarter. Maybe this was the accountability Ime Udoka spoke of, maybe it was Green being unable to fulfill his primary purpose, scoring. If he’s unable to do that, he needs to be replaced because if he’s not scoring his defens, though improving, is nowhere near enough to keep him on the court against Golden State, especially when they are playing very small.
Instead of Jalen in the 4th, we saw Aaron Holiday, who played very well with 13pts on 4-5 shoot (3-4 3pt) along with 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 4 steals. His steals were interesting, as they were clear products of reading the offense and picking off passes like a cornerback in football. If he can play like that more often, the Rockets actually DO have a backup PG.
The Rockets felt the absence of Tari Eason tonight, on the boards, and just in terms of manic energy and defense. He could have held down center when Sengun had to rest, because Jock Landale continues to be unplayable.
Anyhow, it’s another loss, and the Rockets weren’t winners in Cali, but they never game up, they were in every game the whole way. At some point this season I expect the young Rockets to win this kind of game. I expect the NBA to notice that they have some interesting young players on their hands, even if no one is NBA Famous. Yet.
The tough defense is keeping the Rockets in every game, the offense needs to get tough, too. I think it will.
Flying Back To Houston With Forgetting This The Nature of Our Flight-O-Meter
* The NBA Narrative is clearly a fiction. I mean, Denver somehow won a title. With the best player in the NBA, and an extremely well-conceived roster, but still...Denver.
PS - I’m really burnt out on recaps ya’ll. Sorry.