James Harden had nine points and five assists as the Houston Rockets sprinted to a 71-56 lead heading into the half against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night. The Rockets looked comfortable -- they moved quickly and scored at will from everywhere on the court. They were too much for the Hawks, who couldn't contain the Rockets' offensive onslaught.
But as has happened with the Rockets so many times this season, everything fell to pieces. The offense stagnated in the second half and the defense was nonexistent. The Hawks stormed back and outplayed the Hawks down the stretch -- thanks in part to the hack-a-Dwight Howard strategy -- to win 121-115. Four Hawks scored at least 20 points. Al Horford notched 30 points and 14 rebounds and Paul Millsap added 22 points and 13 boards.
The Hawks have won 7-of-8 to reemerge as a threat in the East. Meanwhile, the Rockets' bizarre season took another wild turn as they fell below .500 with a second consecutive loss.
Ethan Rothstein of the Dream Shake called the Rockets the Jekyll & Hyde of the NBA, and he's spot on. The Rockets have beaten the Spurs, Clippers (twice) and the Thunder, but have lost to the Nets (twice), Nuggets (three times), Kings and Knicks. Tuesday's loss to the Hawks was a snapshot of the Rockets season -- they looked phenomenal at points and lost at others.
The problems started for the Rockets when the Hawks' interior defense stepped up. In the first half the Rockets were getting to the lane at will, but Horford and Millsap went into lockdown mode in the second half. The Rockets couldn't buy a bucket, scoring only 44 points in the second half after lighting up the Hawks for 71 in the first. And their defense was the opposite:
No one was guarding the basket. Not even close. It's a broken record at this point, but one of the main problems for the Rockets this season has been their effort. They continue to have off nights -- or halves -- and it makes sense why they're so inconsistent.
It's not like Harden had a terrible night -- he had 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists -- but those numbers don't matter if the Rockets aren't attacking on offense and hitting their rotations on defense.
If they want to have any shot of returning to the Western Conference finals, the Rockets have to play with urgency. They can't continue to have two distinctly different identities.
2 other things we learned
The New York Knicks are fun to watch. (Really!)
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks haven't been consistent, but when they're on, they can hang with anyone. In a win over the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday, they were firing on all cylinders. Anthony had 24 points, six assists and six rebounds to lead the way, but the frontcourt play of Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez may have been the biggest key. The Knicks big men had themselves a block party.
Lopez had 11 points, seven rebounds and six blocks, and Porzingis added two swats. They held Andre Drummond, the NBA's leading rebounder, to just nine rebounds and blocked five of his shots. The Knicks are at their best when they're attacking. Against the Pistons they pushed, and because of it Derrick Williams had one of the best games of his season off the bench, with 18 points in 18 minutes.
The Knicks still need to find a way to be consistent, but this game was a blueprint of what it will take to stay in the playoff race in the East.
The Miami Heat look similar to last year's Heat, and that's not a good thing.
The Heat always seem on the cusp of being the team that's going to threaten LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. Then they go and lose two straight -- including a loss against the Nets.
On Tuesday, the Heat lost in overtime to the Memphis Grizzlies. It was a grind-it-out affair with the Grizzlies coming out on top thanks to a surprising offensive run in the extra quarter. It wasn't a terrible loss, but it was another in what has been a mediocre December for the Heat.
In November, the Heat looked the part of one of the East's best team, going 9-5 with a defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions) of 94.2. They finished December 8-7 with their defensive rating jumping up to 103.7 for the month. Last season the Heat had the unfortunate luck of losing Chris Bosh for the final stretch of the season and they were unable to fit in new acquisition Goran Dragic. But at this point in the season, there are no more excuses. The Heat have been relatively healthy but are trending downward.
Play of the night
Giannis Antetokounmpo's nickname is the Greek Freak. It's quite fitting. But maybe it should be Young KD? He moves in a similar way to Kevin Durant, but with a little more strength. The Thunder beat the Bucks, but the Greek Freak got Durant's number on this one.
4 fun things
* * *
SB Nation presents: Introducing Porzingis! A revolution in NBA rim cleanup