The Rockets had no answer for Channing Frye and the Phoenix Suns on Sunday.
WHO: Suns 99, Rockets 86
WHAT: The Rockets fell flat and looked weak in what was an absolutely crucial game. Phoenix entered the night 1 1/2 games back of Houston for 8th in the West. They now are just a 1/2 game back after a dominating win in which they thoroughly had their way in a game that was not as close as it looked. Houston fell to 24-22 overall and fell to a miserable 8-16 on the road. The good news is the Rockets will return to Houston for a four-game homestand starting with Tuesday’s game against the Lakers, but sooner or later they have to figure out how to win on the road. Phoenix, Utah, Minnesota and Portland are all within two games of the Rockets for the West’s last playoff spot with 20 games left in the season.
WHAT HAPPENED?: After hitting their first three shots, the Rockets’ offense went down the drain. Phoenix led 26-13 after the first quarter as the Rockets shot just 26 percent in the frame. The Suns sliced through the Rockets’ defense in a familiar way, by attacking the paint and the offensive glass. Houston never recovered. It comes as no surprise that the Suns’ frontcourt led the way, with Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat combining for 34 points and 18 rebounds. Houston committed 16 turnovers to Phoenix’s 9, and that was a result of a lack of point guard play. Goran Dragic committed two fouls within the first three minutes of the game that forced him to the bench, and from there Houston’s offense collapsed brilliantly. There was no semblance of a rhythm or structure, and Phoenix took advantage, building an early lead that was more than enough the rest of the way. Phoenix attacked, and the Rockets didn’t. Phoenix defended, and the Rockets didn’t. More on that later.
CAMBY MAKES DEBUT: Marcus Camby made his Rockets debut on Sunday, and earlier than many anticipated after Samuel Dalembert picked up two quick fouls in the first six minutes of the game. But it’s clear where Camby will help. He attacks the offensive glass, rebounds aggressively and can earn this team a plethora of second chances. He had a nice showing with 8 points, 8 rebounds and a steal and assist in 19 minutes. However, his shot did not look pretty, as many of his buckets came off the tip-in/putback variety. It would not surprise me at all if he earns more and more minutes over the mercurial Dalembert, who had a nice game (12 points, 6 rebounds) but seems to only play well with a team owning a decided advantage on the scoreboard.
NOTHING FREE: When the Rockets’ offense goes awry for whatever reason, it’s a brutal reminder that this team cannot get easy buckets. Houston entered the game averaging just 19.8 free throws per game, and it is 27th in the league in total free throw attempts, despite ranking a health 4th in percentage (78.8). Houston got to the line for 22 attempts Sunday, but don’t be fooled. Phoenix had shot 14 free throws before the Rockets took their first. At the end of the first quarter, which is essentially where the game was won, the Suns had 14 attempts to Houston’s 4. This is a direct consequence from the fact that the Rockets have no interior threat who can get points near the rim. They’re getting better, emphasizing Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson more with their backs to the basket, but it’s not nearly enough. With a shaky defense, the Rockets are all but doomed if shots aren’t falling and the ball and bodies aren’t moving to move the defense, open gaps and create open looks.
DEFENSE FALTERING: Throughout the season, the Rockets have ranked in the bottom 10 in points allowed per game, and it’s only gotten worse lately. In the past 11 games, Houston is surrendering 104 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting. That production is coming off 24 assists per game. The Rockets are still getting beat on the defensive glass and rotations are not sharp or responsive enough. Aside from the likes of Chandler Parsons and Courtney Lee, the Rockets are slow afoot and it shows on the defensive end.
ROCKETS’ DIAPER DANDIES UPDATE: For the second straight game, Marcus Morris saw quality time, this time playing against bigger bro Markieff for the first time ever. Morris had 2 points and a steal and a foul in his 10 minutes, 58 seconds. He went 1-for-3 from the floor and missed a 3. He was abused defensively, though his offensive know-how is solid. Once he gets more confidence and minutes, I think he’ll have a versatile offensive game that could deeply benefit the Rockets’ second unit. Greg Smith was active, but did not play.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?: It’s a big blow. The Rockets squandered a chance to put more ground between them and their chasers. It was also a concern to see them play more intense Saturday against the Clippers short-handed, and fail to do so against the Suns even with the return of Parsons and the debut of Camby. Yes, their starting backcourt still remains out of action, but that’s something that they’ll just have to get used to. There are rumblings Kyle Lowry may be out longer than the 2-4 weeks from his bacterial infection, and Kevin Martin has not been too much of a productive piece anyway, no matter what the numbers show. Houston does have opportunity to get things together and get back in a flow at home over the next four games, including two (Golden State and Sacramento) that should be relatively gimmes. Still, the bottom line is the Rockets’ defense is going downhill, and they had a chance to correct some rebounding and attacking issues against a Suns lineup that isn’t at all intimidating. They got outworked, manhandled and outhustled by the Suns in ever facet Sunday. And with 20 games left, their issues (defense, free-throw attempts, point guard and post play) are ones that reign significant when fans have expectations of a team that should make the playoffs and has the roster to possibly put a scare into a Oklahoma City or San Antonio.