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This terrible Rockets late-game defense may cost them a playoff spot

Houston has been a disaster on defense for most of the season. It cost the Rockets dearly on Wednesday when they lost a close game against a direct rival on an awful late-game breakdown.

The Rockets are fighting for their playoff lives right now. They are one of three teams separated by half a game that are fighting for the last two spots in the Western Conference playoffs. On Wednesday, they played a crucial game against a direct rival: the Jazz in Houston. A win meant keeping the eight seed and earning the tiebreaker against the Jazz. A loss meant sitting on the outside looking in.

The Rockets dominated the first half thanks to balanced scoring orchestrated by James HardenPatrick Beverley and a fantastic defensive effort that held Utah to just 34 points. Their biggest lead was 18 points. The Jazz woke up in the third and cut it to six, but going into the final period, Houston was in control.

That all changed in the fourth quarter, when the Jazz finally erased the deficit. Gordon Hayward put Utah up two from the free throw line with 24 seconds to go, only for Dwight Howard to tie it with a dunk with 22 left. Then, this happened.

Rodney Hood, who had been terrible up until that moment, got a clear drive to the basket from way beyond the three-point line, which forced Howard to help and left Derrick Favors open under the rim for the game-winning dunk.

Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff claimed Favors stepped in from out of bounds, but that shouldn't matter for the Rockets. It was a complete defensive breakdown on the last possession of one of the biggest games of the season and one that was not forced by a clever play out of a timeout.

How it happened

The Jazz gave Hood -- who at this point was 2-for-11 from the floor and had more turnovers than assists -- the ball after the Howard dunk. Harden guarded him all the way up the floor, which teams do so they can see screens coming and be able to react to them. The fact that Hayward, the small forward, acted as the screener usually means the play is actually for him and the goal is simply to force Harden, a weaker defender, to switch onto him.

This should have been entirely predictable for the Rockets. Hayward is the Jazz's default late-game option and was playing much better than Hood. Instead, it caught the Rockets completely off guard.

Rockets 1

At no point does Harden look back to see where the screen coming from or who is going to set it. He's simply not ready. Ariza is far from blameless as well -- it doesn't look like there's any communication between the two as the play unfolds.

Ariza stayed close to Hayward to prevent the switch, essentially playing the "push" pick and roll defense. That works if Harden goes under the screen to recover to Hood, and that's sensible given Hayward's big fourth quarter. But Harden, for some reason, instead ducked inside, thinking Ariza would actually switch onto Hood. That took him out of play for a second as soon as Hood dribbled to his left.

Rockets 2

That's all Hood needed to turn the corner and attack the paint with a head start. Ariza quickly realized that Harden was not going under the screen as he should have, so he left Hayward to chase him. All that did, though, was make it easier for Hayward to actually make contact with Harden trailing the play.

Rockets 3

The end result is Hood had an open lane to the rim with Ariza trailing him and Harden nowhere to be found. Howard had to leave Favors to stop Hood's drive, while Terry and Beverley can't help quickly enough from the corners.

Rockets 4

Hood found Favors with the easy pass, and the Jazz scored an easy bucket.

Utah didn't need to do anything complicated to get the easiest shot in the game. They had their small forward set a high screen for their shooting guard to force a switch, and the Rockets' defense completely fell apart. Those kinds of breakdowns are the reason Houston ranks 23rd in defensive efficiency this season after finishing sixth last year. There's no effort, there's no communication and there's a very low collective basketball IQ. All those weaknesses came crashing down on a single crucial possession that could be the difference between the playoffs and the lottery.

There's still a decent chance the Rockets recover from this. They're only a half-game behind the Jazz and the Mavericks, with one more game against Dallas to come and matchups against the hapless Suns, Lakers, Timberwolves and Kings left on the schedule. If they do miss the playoffs, they will get to keep their draft pick instead of sending it to Denver as part of the Ty Lawson trade.

Still, a lottery appearance is crushing for Houston's summer plans. This is just one play, but it encapsulates the Rockets' baffling season after dreams of title contention in the preseason.

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