The Houston Rockets are currently riding a three-game losing streak. Houston had three marquee matchups in the past week, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat on the road this week.
Before the losing streak, Houston had won five in a row, including home victories over the Heat, Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers. In fact, before their three-game losing streak, Houston had won 15 out of 17 games, with their only two losses coming to the Golden State Warriors (in overtime on the road) and the Los Angeles Clippers (also on the road).
So, after dropping a trifecta of games against top-notch opponents on the road, where do the Rockets stand? Pretty much in the same place they were before they rattled off five in a row against top-of-the-line competition: Fourth-best in the Western Conference.
Some people may have gotten a little out of hand when analyzing Houston’s five-game winning streak, especially after they dismantled the Pacers on national televsion, but those who follow the team closely knew how grueling the upcoming schedule was, and realize Houston is a completely different team on the road.
As a whole, the team got back into some bad habits during the losing streak, and that includes the coaching staff. Houston went into a serious offensive lull when they went to their second unit against the Thunder on Tuesday, turning to stand-still, isolation basketball for a good five minutes as the Thunder extended their lead. Houston started to make a comeback in the second half, but the hole their second unit had dug turned out to be too steep.
Although I do believe that Houston was doomed after their second quarter drought against the Thunder, Dwight Howard was a relative no-show for the first two games of the week. Despite the Thunder playing without their starting center Kendrick Perkins, leaving the hard-nosed, but still-below-average Steven Adams and famous draft bust Hasheem Thabeet to cover Howard, D12 was ineffective. Howard shot just 4-for-12 from the field and 1-for-6 from the line against the Thunder (finishing with just nine points and 10 boards), and followed that performance up with a near triple-double: 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven turnovers against Joakim Noah of the Bulls.
Howard played better Sunday, going 21-14-5 with only two turnovers against Miami’s suspect centers, but failed to make a difference offensively down the stretch (which wasn’t completely his fault, but he didn’t help the situation either).
Also during the losing streak, Kevin McHale got back into his bad habit of playing small, something Houston did so well against the Blazers just last Sunday. For most of the first half of the season, McHale played Omri Casspi at the 4, which killed Houston on the boards (especially since Omer Asik was out for so long), but this time McHale wasn’t making the mistake with Casspi. The Rockets haven’t had Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin healthy at the same time for too long this season, but in the past few weeks, McHale was leaned heavily on the ultra-small lineup of Beverley, Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard, especially late in games. While the lineup does have its moments, overall it’s proven to be ineffective, allowing opponents to bully Parsons inside, and forcing Lin into a likely height mismatch on the perimeter.
Against the Heat, McHale went to the small lineup down the stretch, pulling Donatas Motiejunas with six minutes left in favor of Lin, and the results were awful. Lin had a hard time sticking with Allen, who is the master at coming off screens for jumpers, and playing so small also hurt Houston ability to defend LeBron James. With Terrence Jones on the floor, Houston can switch a lot of high screens, but late in the game, when Lin got switched onto LBJ, the league’s best player just overpowered him, getting into the lane with ease.
Luckily for Houston, things should get better in a hurry. The upcoming schedule features a pair of home games against the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, followed by a couple of cupcake road matchups with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Bobcats, before Houston returns home to take on the mighty Philadelphia 76ers (who beat Houston in their first matchup without Harden).
Even with three-straight losses, the Rockets are still one game ahead of the Blazers (with the tiebreaker), and three and a half games ahead of the sixth-place Golden State Warriors. The way the Los Angeles Clippers are playing right now, it’s hard to believe Houston can catch them (2.5 games back, lost the tie breaker), especially with the Clips upcoming schedule being as easy as it is.
But the Rockets don’t really need to worry about that right now. James Harden is still playing at an incredibly high level, and the team is still a work in progress. In all likelihood, Houston will grab the fourth seed in the West (definitely no a give in, but that’s my opinion), and I’ll take four out of seven at home against Portland. As much as I hate to admit it, Houston probably can’t win the West this year, but that’s not something you worry about this time a year. I mean, who knows, a couple of torn ACLs and maybe the West will be wide open again.