There have been a few interviews with Rocket players written over the past couple of days about how the team has turned the corner on the season, now better able to execute in late-game situations, getting defensive stops, etc.
With this kind of talk, you can’t help but think the Rockets were going to take care of business, at least over their next 3 games, by beating teams they should beat, starting with one of the worst offensive teams in the league — the Milwaukee Bucks (lowest in scoring, field goal percentage, and 3-point shooting percentage). After all, they also had 3 days of rest since their Tuesday night victory against the Pistons.
I have to admit I was buying into the groupthink.
Instead, the Rockets suffered one of their most embarrassing losses of the season Friday night. Not because it was a loss to a mediocre Milwaukee team with a record in of 8-13 in the East, which is a lot worse than the Rockets’ 7-13 in the tougher Western Conference. Well, it’s partly because of it.
It’s because as Daryl Morey said on Thursday during a radio interview, the Rockets just about needed to win all of their upcoming games against the upcoming run of poorer NBA teams to get back into the playoff hunt. Unfortunately on Friday, they regressed in problem areas you’d think they had already conquered.
The Rockets gave up 48.1% shooting to a Bucks team that was averaging as a team 40.4% for the season. The Bucks also scored a whopping 56 points in the paint, thanks to Andrew Bogut going off for 24 points, as well as 22 rebounds, 7 of them on the offensive glass. The Rockets had no one who could match his size, or could counteract his shot blocking ability (5 blocks).
One of the apt microcosms of the defensive struggles the Rockets went through the entire game was when Luis Scola stupidly made contact with Ersan Ilyasova on a 3-pointer, sending him to the line with 35 seconds remaining and a 90-85 lead. Ilyasova made all 3 free throws, giving them a seemingly insurmountable 8-point advantage. But Kyle Lowry followed up that mistake by hitting two consecutive 3-pointers in a row sandwiched around a Brandon Jennings free throw, cutting the lead down to 94-91 with 21 seconds remaining.
Brad Miller would miss a 3-pointer with 13 seconds remaining that could have brought them to within one point. If only Scola hadn’t committed that dumb foul, there could have been a different outcome. But it’s bad defense like that which gave the Bucks the opening that was provided to them to seize the win.
Throw-in surprisingly bad shooting by Kyle Lowry (4-of-15 for 11 points), Kevin Martin (5-of-13 for 23 points), Luis Scola (4-of-13 for 10 points), and Shane Battier (2-of-8 for 4 points), the Rockets had no chance. Especially given they were out-rebounded 48-37.
It’s funny how when the team does well with guys like Kyle Lowry stepping up, people start thinking the Rockets don’t need Aaron Brooks after all. Well, we saw how important it is to have Brooks’ scoring, kind of like what we saw last year where there was talk that the team didn’t really need Yao when they were winning, only to run out of gas and put that nonsense talk to rest.
The only bright spots for Houston was the bench. Jermaine Taylor actually got decent minutes and delivered like I always knew he would, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 17 minutes. He also had two steals. Finally it looks like Taylor’s athleticism and production is too good to ignore. Similarly, Courtney Lee scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and Jordan Hill hit 4-of-7 shots for 8 points.
Frankly speaking, the Rockets’ psyche has got to be shaken after such a dud of a performance in a game that had “W” written all over it beforehand. They won’t have much time to sulk about it since they play another mediocre team, Cleveland, in the second game of a back-to-back. The Cavs are 7-15 in the East, having lost 6 in a row, with 5 of those losses coming from losing margins of 19 (vs. Boston), 28 (vs. Miami), 34 (vs. Minnesota), 10 (vs. Detroit), and 20 (vs. Philadelphia).
The saving grace for the Rockets seem to be that they play much better at home where they have won their last 4 games, which is the way it should be. Remember a few seasons ago when they played better on the road than at home?