Kevin McHale is just as much to blame for Houston's current skid.
WHO: Nuggets 101, Rockets 86
WHAT: Houston’s third straight loss now has it all alone in 8th place in the West at 32-28 overall. All losses have been to teams the Rockets are either barely ahead of or behind in the playoff race. The Rockets are now a game ahead of Phoenix and 1 1/2 games ahead of Utah for 8th, and a game behind Denver for 7th and 1 1/2 games behind Dallas for 6th. They play the Nuggets again Monday. What’s worse is the Rockets do not have the tiebreaker against said teams: just 1-2 against Denver, 2-2 against Phoenix, 1-2 versus Utah and 0-3 versus Dallas. Odds are building up against their favor.
WHAT HAPPENED?: The Rockets are simply a jump-shooting team that can’t shoot straight. For the third straight game, they were poor from the field, connecting on only 36.8% of their shots, and even shooting a better percentage from 3 (38.5%) than from inside the arc. To compound that, the worst team in allowing points in the paint (46 allowed per game) was no match for the best team in scoring in the paint. Denver scored 60 points in the colored lane and did great damage from the free-throw line and in transition to boot. It was the third quarter, in which the Nuggets outscored Houston 37-19 after the Rockets held a 49-43 halftime lead, that proved the killer. In that quarter, Denver hit 13 of its 20 shots while getting to the free-throw line and canning 9 of 13 attempts. Houston, meanwhile, got nothing inside (of course) and started misfiring on jumpers. The Rockets missed 14 of 21 shots in the quarter, and went to the free-throw line just three times. Simply put, the Denver Nuggets are masters at getting easy points (whether in the paint, in transition or from the line) and the Rockets have to work hard for offense, particularly when shots aren’t falling, especially from deep. For the game, the Nuggets shot 49.4% from the field. Basketball’s a simple game, and the Rockets are making it too difficult on themselves at the worst possible time.
CHASE STARTS HOT, BUT NO ONE CLOSES: If it wasn’t for Chase Budinger, who knows where the Rockets would have been Sunday? Houston’s gunslinger lit the Nuggets up for 16 first-half points on 6-for-11 shooting, including 4-for-8 from 3. Unfortunately, he was the only one hitting consistently from deep, and when the Nuggets started tracking him harder in the second half, Houston was really in trouble. Budinger had 3 points on just 1-for-5 shooting in the final two quarters. With him blanketed, and Luis Scola (14 points in the first half; just 5 in the second) having found himself with multiple defenders in the second half, that forced others like Courtney Lee and Chandler Parsons to step up and they didn’t. Lee misfired on 6 of 9 shots, and Parsons missed 9 of 13. Aside from Budinger, the Rockets finished just 5-for-18 from 3-point range.
McHALE FAILS TO ADJUST: Marcus Camby played only 7 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and then missed the entire second half with a sore back. Many will blame Houston’s fallen second-half defense on his absence, but I don’t buy that. The Rockets were fine without him when building an eight-point lead in the first half before settling for a six-point halftime advantage, thanks to Samuel Dalembert, who had 4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks in 12 minutes in the first half. But give Denver credit. They made the adjustments in the final two quarters, particularly offensively when they made more of an emphasis to get the ball in the paint, where the Rockets are weak. Defensively, Denver started attacking Scola and pestering him with double teams, and stuck like glue to Budinger. The problem is the Rockets never countered, and that cost them. That’s on coaching. When opponents adjust accordingly to the Rockets during a game, Houston has not been able to return the call.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: With games still looming against the Nuggets tonight, and then the Mavericks and Heat later on, nothing is guaranteed. Houston has all but unwound the goodwill from the 4-0 road trip that now seems like a distant memory. Energy is lacking. Shots aren’t dropping. And while the defense has not been strong, that’s not been the big reason. It hasn’t been strong all year, and its recent apathy has been emphasized due to the lack of spirit and shooting. It’s getting really tight for the Rockets, and you get the sense they know it and are starting to think a little more on the court, aware of potential consequences. They’re playing with the standings on their mind, and that’s no way for a young, impressionable club to perform.