The next few games could definitively answer the question of whether the Houston Rockets are contenders or pretenders this season.
The Houston Rockets are an unpopular team. Ask any NBA fan and they’ll have their own reasons, which is usually some combination of disdain for the team’s style of play and/or contempt for James Harden‘s individual abilities.
You don’t have to look very hard (especially in the recesses of social media) to find comments about Harden’s poor shooting nights, the Rockets’ choice to move away from a traditional big, or the playoff history of Harden and his backcourt mate, Russell Westbrook.
Yet since the deadline deal to move Clint Capela and bring in sharpshooting defensive ace Robert Covington, the Rockets were surging, going 9-1 over the month of February when Westbrook played. The single loss came by 1 point on a buzzer-beater against the Utah Jazz, while the nine wins included games against the Lakers, Jazz, Celtics, and Grizzlies.
It certainly was as a shock that the first game of March featured an embarrassing loss to the directionless New York Knicks. Space City fans worldwide hoped for a big bounceback game when the Rockets returned home to play the LA Clippers, who had won 5 straight.
Instead, what they were treated to what was perhaps the worst shooting performance since Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, when the Rockets missed 27 consecutive 3-point shots.
The percentages are remarkably and alarmingly similar. In that infamous Game 7, the Rockets shot 7 of 44 from distance. Against the Clippers on Thursday, the Rockets shot 7 of 42 and, despite a 40-point 4th quarter, were still run out of their own gym with a 15-point loss.
So, What’s the Problem?
Since the blockbuster deal to bring in Covington, Westbrook has flourished as a scorer and a playmaker. Harden, however, has taken a massive step back, and not the kind that usually nets him 3 points. With no lob threat, Harden is down to just 10.6 paint points per game after the All-Star Break.
The former MVP’s conversion rate is still a formidable 61 percent, but his jump shot has gone MIA. Harden’s catch and shoot percentage is down to a frigid 20 percent, and his pull-ups are at 32.9 percent. Harden needs to bust out of this shooting slump if he has any hopes of impacting the game at the championship-caliber level of which he’s capable.
The other and perhaps more important factor in the Rockets’ struggles is engagement. On Saturday, the Rockets committed seven turnovers on 10 possessions to start the game in a 20-0 hole to a lowly Hornets team.
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Houston has shown a lack of defensive intensity since the beginning of March, earning an abysmal 115.0 Defensive Rating. Houston’s lack of rim protection means that they must play defense by committee.
The Rockets rely on elite perimeter defense to prevent drives to the basket, but when players aren’t engaged on that end, opposing slashers can waltz their way into the paint for uncontested dunks, layups and lobs.
Rebounding is also a problem. Clutch City’s lack of size calls for hard boxouts and multiple defensive rebounders. Over this rough patch, the Rockets have struggled mightily on the glass, down to 62 percent defensive rebounding. That figure is unacceptable.
In the Harden era, the Rockets have consistently struggled with effort and intensity. Houston has 3 of their next four games against non-playoff opponents in the Timberwolves, Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers, but have a tough matchup with the Lakers coming up on Thursday.
Still, now down to sixth in the standings in the West, the Rockets cannot afford to take any teams lightly, no matter their record, as they look to rebound from this very poor recent showing.
Look for this upcoming stretch to be a big indicator of whether this team is a contender or a pretender.