The Houston Rockets were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team last year, and they really only managed to be mediocre because of Omer Asik's excellent rim protection. The addition of Dwight Howard was expected to bolster the defense, and while there has been some improvement, major breakdowns on the perimeter have led to both losses on the young season.
Earlier in the week against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets let Chris Paul run wild, giving up a whopping 137 points in a 19-point loss. Houston also had a really difficult time containing the Clippers' three-point shooters, allowing them to go 15-of-38 (39.5 percent) from long range.
Some of the same issues reared their ugly head in Thursday night's 99-98 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were consistently afforded good looks from the perimeter in the first half, and they took advantage to the tune of 11-of-14 three-point shooting. Los Angeles built a 19-point lead early in the second quarter and took a 64-50 lead into the break.
Houston did clamp down a bit in the second half, giving up just five three-pointers on 21 attempts. But on the most crucial play of the game, the Rockets suffered a fatal breakdown, allowing Steve Blake a wide open attempt at a three. Howard tried his best to challenge the shot, but he was too late and Blake swished it home, his fourth three-pointer of the night. On the play, there was a miscommunication between Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley, leading to both guards getting sucked into the paint while Blake roamed free behind the arc:
As Lin told USA Today's Sam Amick afterward, the breakdown epitomized the entire night:
"I think that last play was just kind of a theme for the night in terms of miscommunications on defense and not being totally locked in," Lin said. "We as a team need to be locked in on defense. It can't be something where we (say), 'Hopefully tonight if we're locked in and we hit a lot of shots, then we're OK.' Our defense has to be constant."
Chandler Parsons echoed some of the same thoughts, emphasizing that when the Rockets go to a smaller lineup with more guards, communication is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it will be bombs away for the opponent and more bad losses could pile up:
"When we go to that small lineup, we have to make sure we're on the same page," a justifiably-grumpy Parsons said. "If we're switching, (then) switch. If it's just ball screens, then so be it. (But) we have to talk better. We can't keep having these mental lapses. We were doing it all game. In this game, it was obviously exposed more on the last play, but it was happening all night long."
It's hard to pin the Rockets' perimeter defense problems against the Lakers on just one or two players, as each guy took turns being bad. James Harden may have been the biggest culprit, with some truly horrific defense both on the ball and off the ball. Here, Harden falls asleep in no man's land, losing Blake behind him, resulting in a wide open three for Nick Young that was luckily missed:
And here's Harden getting torched off the dribble far too easily by Blake, resulting in a layup when Asik wasn't able to get over in time:
It wasn't just Harden, though. All of Houston's perimeter defenders had bad lapses throughout the game. This play, for example, came because of poor transition defense by Parsons and Lin. Parsons picked up Steve Nash on the wing, but so does Lin, despite Parsons clearly pointing to the wide-open Blake in the corner. Lin floats into the middle of nowhere and the rotation is late on Blake, who makes the Rockets pay:
Finally, here's a play where Parsons is late to rotate on a side pick and roll. Instead of moving over before the pass to a rolling Chris Kaman is made, Parsons waits until after it happened. This gives Kaman a clear outlet to a wide-open Young in the opposite corner:
There were more examples of this throughout the game, and this is something the Rockets must correct if they're to be taken seriously as a title contender. Lin says they have good defenders, although that point can certainly be argued. Lin and Harden have both been pretty poor defensively throughout their careers, while Parsons isn't quite as good as his reputation. Beverley is generally solid, but as evidenced Thursday, he's susceptible to breakdowns as well.
Still, some of these issues should be correctable no matter the quality of defender. There's really no excuse for mental lapses to occur over and over again, and communication issues should be fixed as the season goes on.
There's plenty of time for the Rockets to work out the kinks, but they would like to see some vast improvement sooner rather than later.
Thanks to Drew Garrison for the GIFs.
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