“We’ve been talking,” slumping superstar James Harden said. “We’ve been doing too much talking.”
Last season, the Rockets surprised more than a few folks by crashing the Western Conference finals, a spot thought to be reserved for the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers. This came after a regular season in which they won 56 games and never lost three in a row despite being hit hard by significant injuries to no less than four rotation players.
This season? The Rockets have lost three in a row twice already. They opened the campaign by becoming the first team in NBA history to lose its first three games by 20 or more points. They are currently on another slide that includes losses to projected doormats Brooklyn and Denver and a Dallas team that sat its top three players.
Is it too early to sound the alarms? On one hand, it’s not even Thanksgiving. The season just reached the eighth pole. After Saturday’s loss to Dallas, Harden said, “Ten games. We got 72 more, right?”
But Harden might be whistling in the dark. The Rockets have allowed at least 105 points in every game. Three of their four wins have been fueled by superhuman efforts by Harden. They are shooting threes and defending worse than Philadelphia.
And this is a team that also made a significant offseason acquisition in Ty Lawson, who was supposed to take some of the burden off Harden and help close the gap on the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Despite a career-high in minutes per game, Lawson’s numbers (9.1 pts, 5.7 ast) are career lows across the board as a full-time starter.
Apologists may want to point to the fact that the Rockets aren’t at full strength. Center Dwight Howard still isn’t playing in back-to-back games. Point guard Patrick Beverley is out with ankle injury. Forward Terrence Jones recently returned from a nasty eyelid injury. Forward-center Donatas Motiejunas has yet to play as he recovers from offseason back surgery.
But Howard only played 41 games last season. Beverley missed 26 games and the postseason. Jones missed 49 games with a number of ailments. And Motiejunas also missed the entire playoffs.
“I’m worried about our team right now,” McHale recently admitted. “We haven’t caught a rhythm yet. We haven’t set it off since we’ve been together. We haven’t been able to put together long runs of just good solid basketball. We had a couple of games in a row there where I thought we were coming out of some stuff. Our defense has way too many individual breakdowns, way too many mistakes. It just can’t happen.”
The defense has been awful through a combination of two elements: (a) the sporadic absences of Howard, who despite his second banana status in Houston remains one of the league’s most impactful paint presences (12.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg); and (b) the backcourt of Harden and Lawson, who in tandem form a sieve.
Last season, the Rockets were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team. They were 17th in opponents’ scoring (100.5 ppg) and 12th in opponents’ shooting (.443). Certainly not great numbers, but more than good enough for a prolific offensive team that pressed pace and imposed its relentless will on foes.
Again, we are only at the eighth pole. But thus far, the Rockets are 28th in opponents’ scoring (108.3 ppg) and opponents’ shooting (.470). And remember, Houston has allowed at least 105 points in every game, so the dramatic dropoff cannot be attributed to resting Howard or the reduced role of Beverley.
After Friday’s loss to Denver, McHale has another explanation.
“We had effort issues,” he said. “We had some times when they outran us. At times they outhustled us on the boards. There were times that we missed easy shots and hung our heads. We just aren’t playing very well right now.”
And the Rockets are missing tons of shots – easy shots, tough shots, short shots, long shots. The Harden/Howard Rockets have always been more about volume than efficiency. A season ago, Houston was just 20th in overall shooting (.444) and 14th in 3-point shooting (.348). But it also was first in threes attempted (32.7) and second in free throws attempted (26.0), generating 103.9 points per game, good for sixth in the league.
The Rockets are still first in threes attempted (32.0) and fifth in free throws (27.4). But they have slipped to 24th in overall shooting (.423) and – perhaps most telling – 29th in 3-point shooting (.284). When you shoot a lot of 3-pointers, you leave your defense unbalanced and become susceptible to run-outs. Hanging your head only makes it worse.
And there are plenty of culprits, too. The Rockets have four regulars – Corey Brewer (.301), Lawson (.319), Trevor Ariza (.321) and Beverley (.342) – shooting less than 35 percent overall. From the arc, they are a collective 37-of-132 (.280). And that number is significantly better than Harden’s atrocious 23-of-96 from deep (.240).
If the Rockets plan on being a top-four seed in the West again this season, they need to fix their problems, and fast. With unacceptable home losses to Denver, Brooklyn and shorthanded Dallas, Houston already is six games in the loss column behind Golden State and four behind Southwest Division foe San Antonio.
And the schedule remains easy for a while. Among its next 10 home games, Houston hosts Boston, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Sacramento, the LA Lakers and Charlotte. Its first three-game road trip doesn’t start until Dec. 14 and has stops at Denver, Sacramento and the Lakers.
After that, however, the party’s over. A home Christmas date vs. San Antonio starts a stretch in which the Rockets see Atlanta, Golden State and San Antonio again over nine days. The tail end of January brings Cleveland, the LA Clippers, San Antonio again and Oklahoma City.
Talk is cheap. It’s time for action.
“I’ve never seen talking win anything, unless you’re talking on defense,” McHale said.
TRIVIA: Which team has the longest current streak of consecutive winning records at home? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Fantasy sports site DraftKings has a sponsorship deal with the Knicks, among other teams, while competing site FanDuel has a deal with the NBA. Prior to Friday’s Cleveland-New York game at Madison Square Garden, arena workers took down signage for DraftKings because they mistakenly believed the game was being nationally televised, then reinstalled it when they found out there was only local TV coverage.
“We’re too young to even have a measuring stick. We’re still in the phase where you measure yourself against a wall in your house, then mark it down.”
TANKS A LOT!: The Philadelphia 76ers have five losing streaks of at least 17 games in their history, including their current slide of 20 dating to last season. Three of those streaks have happened since Sam Hinkie became general manager. Here they are:
26 – Jan. 31-March 27, 2014
20 – Jan. 9-Feb. 11, 1973
20 – March 27, 2015-present
19 – March 21-Nov. 10, 1972
17 – Oct. 29-Dec. 1, 2014
LINE OF THE WEEK: Stephen Curry, Golden State at Minnesota, Nov. 12: 38 minutes, 15-25 FGs, 8-13 3-pointers, 8-8 FTs, five rebounds, four assists, two steals, three turnovers, 46 points in a 129-116 win. Curry scored 21 points in the first quarter, giving him four 20-point quarters in Golden State’s first 10 games. Last season, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook led the NBA in 20-point quarters – with four.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Metta World Peace, LA Lakers at Dallas, Nov. 13: 18 minutes, 0-9 FGs, 0-4 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, three rebounds, zero assists, one steal, zero blocks, three fouls in a 90-82 loss. The Panda’s Friend has missed his last 13 shots, and this game is the centerpiece of that streak.
TRILLION WATCH: It was another strong week for the heroes of zeros. Minnesota guard Andre Miller had a 3 trillion Tuesday vs. Charlotte, Cleveland forward James Jones had a 4 trillion Saturday at Milwaukee and Atlanta forward Mike Scott had a 6 trillion Wednesday vs. New Orleans. But the week’s top performance came from Sacramento guard James Anderson, who posted a 7 trillion as a starter Monday vs. San Antonio. Just to show it wasn’t a fluke, Anderson nearly had a 6 trillion Friday vs. Brooklyn, ruining it with a 3-point miss. However, the season leader remains Hawks rookie Lamar Patterson and his 8 trillion at Miami on Nov. 3.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Golden State at LA Clippers, Nov. 19. Round 2 of the best rivalry in the league. The Clippers will have four days off before this showdown, while the undefeated Warriors will be coming off Tuesday’s home game vs. Toronto. The Clippers are one of the few teams that has come close to beating the Warriors, holding the lead in the final two minutes before losing, 112-108.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Portland at LA Lakers, Nov. 22. After a surprising 4-2 start, Portland is plummeting with five straight losses while allowing 109.6 points per game. Sunday’s win over Detroit ended LA’s four-game skid and improved the Lakers to a spiffy 2-8. Collectively, these teams have 19 players 25 or younger.
TWO MINUTES: Steph Curry’s 3-point streak is now up to 84 games, five shy of Dana Barros for second place on the all-time list. He has now gone more than a calendar year since being shut out from the arc by San Antonio on Nov. 11, 2014. Curry is shooting just under 45 percent from deep during the streak, but it is a little easier to keep the run alive when you have the freedom to hoist that Curry does; he has shot at least 10 threes 31 times during the streak. By comparison, Kyle Korver fired 10 or more threes just five times during his record 127-game streak. … Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas has missed at least nine shots in every game this season. … The Mavs chose not to re-sign Tyson Chandler, who is making $13 million this season with the Suns (5-4) and averaging 7.2 points and 10.2 rebounds with a 14.60 PER. They were jilted by DeAndre Jordan, who is making $19.69 million with the Clippers (6-4) and averaging 10.1 points and 12.9 rebounds with an 18.32 PER. So they traded for Zaza Pachulia, who is making $5.2 million and averaging 10.7 points and 10.0 rebounds with a 19.57 PER, helping Dallas to a 6-4 mark. Both coach Rick Carlisle and Wesley Matthews have expressed surprise at how good the 13-year veteran is, but Pachulia credits his solid play to being around veterans rather than the kiddie corps in Milwaukee. “Here, you look around the locker room and guys have been in the league 10, 11, 12, 17 (years), so these guys know how to play the right way,” he said. “It’s like day and night when I came from Milwaukee. It’s become so much easier. Maybe because the mentality that I have is to play team basketball, it’s easier for me to fit in this system.” … It’s hard to imagine any team having gone longer than eight games into the season with no road losses and no home wins, as the Minnesota Timberwolves somehow did. With all the numbers crunching out there, can we get some clarification on this? … Here are a couple of anecdotal references which illustrate the increasing influence of the 3-pointer on today’s NBA: In 412 games through his first seven seasons, Hawks center Al Horford was 10-of-29 from 3-point range. In 76 games last season, he was 11-of-36. In 12 games this season, he is 15-of-44. Wizards forward Kris Humphries had not made a 3-pointer since going 2-of-6 as a rookie with Utah in the 2004-05 season, going 0-of-20 from the arc over the next 10 years and not even attempting one in four of those seasons. In eight games this season, he is 13-of-28 on 3-pointers, draining five in Saturday’s win over Orlando. Both Horford and Humphries had offseason discussions with their coaches about expanding the range on their jumpers to the arc. And then there is DeMarcus Cousins, who is 13-for-29 from the arc after going 2-for-8 last year and 0-for-7 the previous season. … For the four seasons that LeBron James was his teammate, Mario Chalmers shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range. Since James left, Chalmers has shot .291 from the arc. Memphis needs a lot more help than that with its perimeter shooting. … Knicks forward Derrick Williams has 39 points on 12-of-28 shooting in two games vs. Milwaukee and 45 points on 13-of-41 shooting in nine games vs. everyone else.
Trivia Answer: Indiana with 26. … Happy 42nd Birthday, Ben Handlogten. … OK, when do the Warriors play the Sixers?
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.