Last season, the Houston Rockets defense was bad.
Inject: Three-time defensive player of the year, Dwight Howard.
Outcome: The defense is still bad. Really bad.
The L.A. Clippers exposed the head of the snake, as Chris Paul and J.J. Redick put on a clinic in the backcourt, much to the oft-embarassed, over-matched Jeremy Lin and a lazy James Harden.
That read correct. Harden was notoriously lazy on defense, not putting forth the effort chasing a red hot J.J. Redick around screens, nor bending his knees, nor managing to cover the frequent blemishes of Lin who seemed to bite just about every ball fake the Clippers Paul threw at him.
Lin is historically an at least average defender, but Paul’s deft maneuvering often rendered Lin on his heels, or even worse, his bottom.
Harden had less of an excuse. J.J. Redick had 19 points in the first half and seemed to be able to get just about whatever he wanted offensively. The Bearded One, meanwhile, conserved his energy so he could launch up fade away threes on offense. Harden finished the half 0-for-6 from behind the arc and Redick had utterly embarrassed the league’s fifth leading scorer. Redick went on to finish with 26 on 8-of-15 shooting, while Lin’s cover CP3 posted a monstrous 23 point, 17 assist line.
The Clippers posted a franchise high for points in the first half (78) and won handedly, 137-118.
The collapse may not have been so bad if it didn’t start out poorly. Dwight Howard battled foul trouble as he and Harden both picked up two early ones. Kevin McHale gambled and put Howard back on the court to close the first quarter, and he picked up a third.
It makes it even more problematic for the Rockets if the perimeter defense is collapsing and the bigs are in foul trouble. Without Howard on the court, the Rockets lack rim protecting since Asik isn’t much of a shot blocker. Greg Smith put in some quality minutes in relief of Howard, but No. 12 can’t consistently battle that kind of foul trouble.
Overall, the Rockets had a lot of weaknesses exposed against the Clippers, and it may be that the remedy lies in the injured Patrick Beverley, who had initially been chosen as starter for his defense. Beverley’s energy and effort were sorely needed as Chris Paul exposed Lin’s lack of lateral foot speed, and tendency to over play fakes.
It’s true that Chris Paul exposes even very good defense, but there is no pretending that much defense was played. The Rockets solution to matching high scoring can’t be just to score more themselves. Once the team fell behind, an over reliance on threes promulgated offensive predictability, and Doc Rivers had no problem with the Rockets taking early shot clock threes in an attempt to get back in the game.
In Game Three of the season against Utah, the Rockets were able to get back into it after falling behind early, but the Clippers are several notches above the lowly Jazz. The Rockets found out the hard way that they can’t get into the habit of falling behind and hoping to stage massive comebacks.
Defense is going to have to be played if this team is to legitimately contend, and this Rockets squad needs to refocus on that end of the court or it will face a first round exit much like last year’s. Defense is magnified in the playoffs, and as of right now the Rockets just aren’t anywhere near ready. Good thing it’s November.