Goran Dragic has blitzed the competition lately in the starting role. Is it enough to assure the Rockets' brass they'll be fine without Kyle Lowry?
WHO: Cavaliers 118, Rockets 107.
WHAT: Less than 24 hours after they snapped a five-game losing streak in Newark on Saturday, the Rockets delivered a thud on Sunday, falling to 22-20 to fall back to 8th in the West. Minnesota is a game back from the Rockets in 9th, and Portland is a 1 1/2 games back, sitting in 10th. But ugly habits were once again cause for defeat for the Rockets Sunday, specifically their lack of defense and inability to win on the road. Houston dropped to 7-14 on the road, and has still only won just twice in the eight games since the All-Star break. The bottom line is the same thing that has been the bug in the engine for this team is the same since the 2008-2009 season: defense. The Rockets are fine offensively, but they don’t defend at a competent level, and it’s about to cost them a playoff berth.
WHAT HAPPENED?: Allowing 105 points in the seven prior games since the break, the Rockets gave up 118 to a Cavs team that played long stretches without its lone playmaker, Kyrie Irving (and he was off as well, shooting just 5-of-15). Cleveland, known for its physicality and decent amount of size, shot 47.6 percent, including a red-hot 55 percent (11 of 20) from 3-point range. And these were wide open looks, repeated looks, that the Rockets showed no effort in preventing. The Rockets’ offense was healthy for the second straight night (107 points on 51 percent shooting, including 47.1 percent from 3), but it’s not enough. That’s how bad the defense has been, and the truth is they were lucky to escape Saturday with a win in New Jersey.
BUDINGER COMES THROUGH AGAIN: I have never been on Chase Budinger’s bandwagon. Would much rather see his minutes go to rookie Marcus Morris and have the lottery pick and get his feet wet, since I have the feeling he could help this team immediately if given the time. Still, I have to give Budinger credit for his professional attitude in spite of inconsistent playing time. After not playing several games, he scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting Saturday, and followed that with 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting Sunday. He’s given the bench a scoring boost it has desperately needed, especially against the Cavs when Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson were struggling. I doubt he’s a long-term figure for the Rockets, but his stock is certainly rising if used for a potential deal.
POINT OF ATTACK: Kyle Lowry missed the second straight game Sunday, and is reportedly out the next 2-4 weeks with a bacterial infection. Fortunately, on the court, Goran Dragic has picked up the slack admirably. Dragic scored 20 points Sunday, hitting 7 of 11 shots, and at one stretch hit seven straight 3s between Saturday’s and Sunday’s games. This was after he scored 23 on 8-of-14 shooting Saturday. If the Rockets have truly been reluctant to part with Lowry in a deal for Pau Gasol, Dragic’s recent play, one would assume, has to have them reconsider even a bit. Dragic has better chemistry with Luis Scola than Lowry does, and it’s partly why Scola, who had 30 points and 8 rebounds Sunday, has played so well and looked more active with Dragic as the starter. Dragic’s aggressiveness offensively and daggers from 3-point range open things up considerably, and while it hurts defensively, he’s at least shown he can step up and be the starter and respond to the pressure.
KEVIN MARTIN WATCH: Kevin Martin only played 17 minutes Saturday, and scored 5 points on 2-for-5 shooting. He did not record a rebound, assist, steal, block, turnover or foul. Sunday? He had 3 points on 1-for-4 shooting in 15 minutes, with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Martin reportedly did not play most of the second half due to a strained right shoulder. But, going by how things have gone lately, odds are he wouldn’t have seen much time even if he had been healthy.
ROCKETS’ DIAPER DANDIES UPDATE: Neither Marcus Morris or Greg Smith played. Morris was a DNP-CD (Did Not Play: Coach’s Decision), as was Smith, who was on the active list after not being on it Saturday.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?: The Rockets fell to 1-7 in back-to-backs that end on the road. They got outworked again Sunday, and the defense was pathetic. Open look after open look. I’ve said it before: it’s hard to change the culture defensively when you have a slew of offensive-minded players. To change the culture, you’re going to have to trade a lot of people. I do like how the offense has looked lately, moving the ball and getting quality looks. Luis Scola is coming around and looking like his past self, with his array of scoop shots and inside work, instead of just settling for bailout midrange jumpers. I did like the Rockets’ emphasis of him Sunday, with him getting 25 shots in 35 minutes. That’s more around what I expect when you have one of the better offensive power forwards in the league. I’m encouraged by Dragic’s play, as well as Chandler Parsons, who again continued his streak of fine offensive outings with 9 points on 4-of-6 shooting. But it’s all fool’s gold. Coach Kevin McHale is said to be big on defense and rebounding. Take a guess at the Rockets’ two biggest flaws right now.