The Houston Rockets coming off a tough overtime loss in Indianapolis to the Pacers, returned to the Toyota Center to face the Chicago Bulls in the first of five straight at home. The Rockets were going for a sweep of the Bulls, as they defeated them 133-118 a day after Christmas.
Kevin Porter Jr. had a season-high 36 points, and the Rockets recorded one of their rare double-digit wins of the season in their last matchup with the Bulls. The Rockets had only 16 games left in the season coming into this game and had a great chance at a win.
Unfortunately, the same issues that have plagued the Rockets all year came back in a significant way in the fourth quarter. The Rockets couldn't miss in the first three quarters and couldn't buy a shot in the fourth as they fell to the Bulls 119-111.
Here are a few things that stood out to me in the Rockets’ loss to the Bulls.
The Rockets have struggled throughout the season with ball movement. They have been at the bottom of the league for most of the season in assists. That wasn't the case at to start off Saturday's night game.
The Rockets had 13 made baskets in the first quarter, and out of the 13, they had 11 assists. Jae' Sean Tate came in and made several great reads. Tate had three assists in the first, and even when he didn't get an assist, he would initiate the offense and get players easy shots.
It continued in the second quarter as the Rockets finished the half with 18 assists on their 21 made baskets. The Rockets went back and forth with the Bulls in the third quarter as they continued to move the ball and had 26 assists heading into the last quarter.
In the third quarter, the Rockets had their best stretch of the game as they continued to move the ball and put the Bulls on their heels. The Rockets finished with a 40-point quarter and had an eight-point lead heading into the final frame.
The Rockets’ bad three-point shooting has been well-documented over the season. Their three-point attempts have dropped significantly since the beginning of the season. The Rockets went from a team shooting over 30 three-pointers a game to some games not even surpassing 20 attempts for an entire game.
For most of the season, the Rockets were also at the bottom of the rankings in three-point percentage. However, they flipped the script in the first half of their matchup with the Bulls, shooting 9-for-16 from beyond the arch for a sizzling 56.3 percent.
The Rockets continued the hot shooting in the third quarter as they started the quarter 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Tari Eason, who has surprisingly been the Rockets best shooter all year, started the game 4-for-4 from three-point range as the Rockets were 14-for-22 from deep heading into the fourth quarter.
Houston’s shooting slowed down tremoundsly in the fourth quarter even though they finished with one of their best shooting games of the season. In the fourth quarter, the Rockets reverted back to poor shooting and missed shots down the stretch.
The Rockets went 1-for-11 in the fourth quarter when good teams typically make plays in close games. It has been the opposite for Houston, as they have folded more times than not in the last five minutes of games. After going 15-for-23 in the first three quarters, the Rockets made mistakes, and shots did not fall in clutch times.
It's starting to click for Jabari Smith.
This season, it has been a lot of talk about how Jabari Smith has not lived up to his pre-draft hype. Smith struggled from deep most of the season and, at times, faded to the background on both sides of the ball. Smith, however, broke out in a big way in the Rockets’ overtime loss to the Pacers. Smith had a career-high 30 points and a turnaround three-pointer to send the game into overtime. What would he do for an encore?
Smith followed up his career-best game with another impressive outing vs. the Bulls. Smith led all Rockets scores with 20 points on 8-1for-4 shooting. He also finished with 10 rebounds and 2 blocks. I asked Smith about how he is taking advantage of teams switching smaller players on him.
"I feel like it's kind of disrespectful. When I come out on the court, and I see like Devonte Graham guarding me to start the game, Patrick Beverley"
Smith is averaging 17.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and his three-point shooting in the last five games has also improved in that span. It’s been 45 percent over that stretch, as Smith has been a lot more aggressive recently, which has led to the best basketball of his career.
Execution in close games continues to be an issue
As mentioned earlier, the Rockets looked like world-beaters in the first three quarters but fell apart in the fourth quarter. The Rockets were outscored 32-16 in the fourth and were a dismal 1-for-11 from the three-point line. They didn't do much better inside the paint either, as they missed 11 out of their last 12 shots overall.
The Rockets also had five turnovers in the final period, with a few turnovers leading to easy baskets for the Bulls as they pulled away late. During his post-game press conference, Coach Silas spoke about the lack of poise down the stretch.
"We have been talking a lot about poise, and we didn't show much in the fourth".
It has been a theme all season for the Rockets regarding poise and not making mistakes at critical points of the game. However, the Rockets youth is only a part of the issue regarding fourth-quarter collapses.
There have been some encouraging signs as the Rockets inch closer to another season at the bottom of the standings. Smith is finally showing why many people were excited about his potential. In addition, the Rockets have seen better play from players like Josh Christopher, and they aren't turning the ball over at a record pace like they were earlier in the season.
With all that said, the improvement has led to many wins, and some bad habits continue to creep into late-game situations. The Rockets are down to their final 15 games before the most significant offseason in years, and at this point, it is about seeing who on this team can be part of a potentially winning situation in the next couple of seasons.