The Houston Rockets finally ended their second-longest losing streak of the season with their back-to-back wins over a short-handed San Antonio Spurs team. Unfortunately, most people may have looked at this win as a product of the Rockets playing a team who is just as bad as they are.
On the surface, it wasn't much to take from the last game. The Spurs have the third worst record in the league, and it seems they are ramping up their tanking efforts. But even with the Spurs’ lousy record, a win is a win is a win. Especially when the team that gets the win has the worst record in the league. As mentioned, the Rockets snapped an 11-game losing streak by getting out on the fast break and playing up-tempo basketball.
At this point, the Rockets don't have much to play for. The worst record in the league guarantees a team will not have a pick worse than fifth in the upcoming draft. But as we have seen from other teams rebuilding, finishing the season strong can catapult you into more wins the following season.
If the Rockets can improve in these three areas to end the season, it can be the push they need to get them out of the basement next year.
It's no secret that the Rockets are the worst shooting team in the league. They are shooting 32.5 percent from downtown, their worst three-point percentage in a couple of decades. Now the Rockets aren't going to all of a sudden shoot 45 percent as a team to end the season. What they can do is build the confidence of players like Jabari Smith, who is guaranteed to be on the team next season regardless of who the Rockets draft or bring in during free agency.
Last game, the Rockets shot 34.8 percent from the arc, which didn't set the world on fire but is still an improvement on their league-worst mark. The Rockets’ attempts have gone down over the last few weeks, coinciding with Kevin Porter Jr.'s absence. Porter Jr. has been a polarizing player for the Rockets, but one thing can't be disputed: he is the Rockets’ best three-point shooter.
Now with Porter Jr. back, the Rockets attempts should go up, and if they can get more makes from players like Smith Jr., Jalen Green and even Alperen Sengun, it can be a massive boost for their confidence as they head into the most important off-season in the years for the Rockets.
Improved shooting means fewer long misses leading to opposing teams getting easy baskets throughout the season. Smith Jr. is shooting only 29.1 percent from three. Green is at 33.6, which is a decline from last season. However, confidence sometimes is just as necessary as technique and practice reps.
Getting out on the break
Going into the season, one of the things the Rockets talked about over and over again was being a team that played with pace and that got out on the fastbreak, which puts pressure on the opposing team. Well, that hasn't happened much this season, as the Rockets are near the bottom of the league in fast break points.
Right now, the Rockets are 23rd in fastbreak points, which is better than other major areas for the Rockets but is still nowhere near where a young team needs to be. When you are the second youngest team in the league and not good in the halfcourt, you must get out on the break as much as possible.
In their win Saturday vs. the Spurs, the Rockets had 30 fast break points which more than doubled their 12.1 average on the season. Regardless of who the Rockets bring in next season, they must become a team that runs and runs often. The Rockets have some of the most athletic players in the league but have not been able to take advantage of their ability to play above the rim.
Of course, this goes hand and hand with their defense, which has been another area the Rockets have struggled with all season long.
The Rockets defense has been bad, to say the least. You don't have to go any further than Damian Lillard's 71 career-high points a few games ago against the Rockets. The Rockets are giving up 118.3 points a game which is 27th in the league after giving up 118.2 points a game last season. Defense issues tie into some of the Rockets’ offensive woes. It isn't easy to get out on the break when you are constantly taking the ball out of the net. Something the Rockets have done a lot this season.
Like the Rockets’ shooting, no one expects them to turn into the Clevland Cavaliers on the defensive end, but they also can't be a revolving door on that side of the floor. Individual improvements from players like Green and Sengun would be a huge boost going into next season. Sengun's effort has never been in doubt on defense, but his ability to guard in space and sometimes lack of lateral quickness has been a concern.
On the other and, Green has the ability but doesn't always lock in on defense, leading to lapses on that side of the court. The easiest improvement any player can make is playing with more effort. Green doesn't have to be a lockdown defender, but he can't be a liability on defense.
Jalen Green: "We all gotta be on the same page going into next season. We know we can't really do anything about our record with playoffs or anything like that, but it's all about pride and just going out and playing hard and trying to win as many games as possible."— Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) March 6, 2023
The most significant improvement outside the teams missed defensive assignments starts with effort. Again missed shots ties into lousy defense, as the more shots you miss, the less likely you are to give an all-out effort on defense. It's just human nature. As you see, a team's offense and defense are not in a vacuum. If you struggle in one area, it can also affect the other side of the court.
The Rockets are the worst team for three years running. Therefore, no one should expect significant improvements in the last few weeks of the season. You don't change overnight when you have been bad for this long. However, the Rockets can give effort on defense, show improvement from deep and use their youth to their advantage as older teams start to slow down to end the season. If the Rockets can make even a slight improvement in the last 19 games, it could be a win (metaphorically) for the entire team going into this all-important offseason.