Tonight the 76ers were missing 2022-23 MVP Joel Embiid, and the Rockets were down two starters, and premium defenders, in Dillon Brooks and Jabari Smith Jr. That might appear to set the scene for a less-than-entertaining game. This was not the case. Either team could have won this one, but it turned, late, for the 76ers and their Rockets East bench.
This doesn’t seem like the sort of game that will tell us much instructive about either team, as both teams were functioning differently than normal, and moreover, there’s not going to much more action between the two teams unless Sixer fans hopes, and Rockets fans wildest dreams for this season are somehow realized simultaneously.
So let’s look at a few things I found to be of interest.
Defensive changes made recently have been either disastrous or the best answer to a problem the Rockets currently can’t solve - fast attacking/shooting PGs. Perhaps Ime Udoka and company were trying to move from “good to great” or were trying to engage in Extreme Thibodeau Behavior. That is, take a defense that was only surrendering around 105 points per game, and turn it into a defense that might surrender fewer than 100 points per game. Or again, simply attempt to cope with certain types of guards.
The mechanism to do so seems to be a sort of defensive help scheme on an opponents best scorer that sends help on that player immediately, and then, if that player passes out of the swarm of Rockets defenders, sends those defenders scrambling back to guard their original man.
Early signs are...bad. The Rockets have given up over 120 in all but two of their last eight games. Most of those struggles to defend have come against skilled attacking guards - Lillard, Young, Mitchell, Haliburton and Maxey. That’s a kind of murderers’ row for the position, but the Rockets don’t seem to have much of a current answer for that type of player (the long term answer is probably Amen Thompson). It’s hard to imagine the Rockets standard more “straight up, help some at the rim, and really defend the 3” defense giving up more than the 42pts and 14-15 FTs Tyrese Maxey scored tonight.
Trying this scheme without the Rockets best overall defender, and best defender recovering off help, Dillon Brooks, seems risky. Doing it without Brooks, and also without the Rockets best defensive big, and most reliable rebounder, Jabari Smith, seems foolhardy.
Fred VanVleet shoots well? Tonight VanVleet went 9-16 overall, and 8-12 from 3pt range for 33 points (as well as 10 assists, but 5 TO). It’s nice to see Fred break out of what has been an almost season-long shooting slump, and we can all hope it will persist. Fred just reaching career averages would help the Rockets a great deal.
What was that last play? Down 130-127 the Rockets had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime late. With no more timeouts, and about 11 seconds remaining the Rockets inbounded to Jalen Green. Green was quickly double teamed, and passed to Jock Landale. Landale did not pass to an open shooter, or even back to Jalen Green, for him to re-establish the shot. He went for a layup, which he missed. There was time, in my estimation, to pass to either Aaron Holiday, left wide open by the double team on Green, or back to Jalen. It was a bad play all around, and raises several questions.
One of those questions is, why were Jock Landale and JaeSean Tate on the court when a 3pt shot was absolutely required? While Tate and Landale can, in theory, shoot it, they aren’t respected as shooters, and you’ve now gifted the defense with two free roaming defenders. Bullock, Whitmore, Jeff Green, all would be better choices than Landale and Tate. Offensive rebounding is nice, but getting a good shot is better.
Ime Udoka, outcoached. It’s easy to forget that Ime Udoka has exactly one year’s previous experience as a head coach. It turned out to be a great year, and the Rockets are also vastly improved. He’s not as experienced as the canny Nick Nurse. Nurse countered the Rockets defense by going small, and filling the court with shooters. This worked, as the Rockets never really adjusted to the whole 76ers team being able to make three point shots, which they did frequently in the 4th quarter to erase an 11pt Rockets lead and win the game.
Nurse also seemed to notice that a lot of Rockets lineups simply lack much offensive punch, or shot creation, and most likely also lack the ability to break down a zone defense. He was proved correct in this also, as when Alperen Sengun had to rest, the Rockets offense stalled against the 76ers. The Rockets could have pretty easily have won this game by surrendering less than 35 points in the 4th quarter, or by being able to attack a zone defense without Alpie (12-16, 28/7/8/1/1).
Jalen Green plays well. Yes, the torchlight parade against Green might need to re-route for at least a day. The 21 year old shooting guard scored 31pts on 12-19 shooting (5-9 3pt), 6rbs, 4ast, 1TO. I still maintain that Jalen should shoot more FT, but hopefully he’ll establish himself as enough of a scorer without them that referees will in their weird fashion, start awarding free throws for actual contact. In the meantime, this is the sort of scoring weapon the Rockets desperately need, and points up that various ideas for the rotation that aren’t “Fix Jalen Green” are likely to be of very limited utility this season. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that Eason and Whitmore provide more, but that would all be far better “in addition to”, rather than “in replacement of” Jalen Green being effective.
Remember when you watch that all NBA players make mistakes, and that young ones, and Jalen is a young player, make more mistakes. The standard now isn’t flawless perfection, it’s discernible improvement. That improvement is unlikely to be a neat upward plot on a graph.
Is this game simply a one off? It’s certainly possible. It’s also possibly a turning point. Rockets hopes are much brighter this season if it’s the latter.
General feeling: the Rockets had enough to beat the 76ers without Embiid. They were outplayed, and outcoached, by veteran players and coaches, down the stretch. It’s the sort of game that might haunt them late in the season, but it was at least winnable, and the offense looked, for the first time in a long while, effective.
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