Game Day: Rockets at Sixers
Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 123-117 OT loss to the Philadelphia 76ers
HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s Wednesday night matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers:
Where to even begin with this basketball version of a visit to Arkham Asylum (a seemingly apt comparison for the Rockets’ experience tonight given that Philly’s home court has been a house of horrors for them in recent years)? I suppose, as with most stories, the best place to start is at the very beginning …
Tonight’s contest lost some of its star power before it even began with the pre-game announcements that both James Harden and Michael Carter-Williams would be sidelined due to their respective foot injuries. But even though those big names sat out, that didn’t prevent the first half of tonight’s contest from having an All-Star game sort of feel – though not, perhaps, for the reason you might have expected. Like the NBA’s midseason extravaganza, this evening’s affair featured little in the way of sustained, effective defense. Both teams pretty much got whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it and several players took full advantage while piling up some rather prolific numbers.
Chief among them was Jeremy Lin, who continued his torrid start by knocking down four of his first six 3-point attempts on his way to recording 16 first half points to go along with seven assists. Lin was masterful on the offensive end, shredding the Sixers’ defense seemingly at will. Dwight Howard was beastly as well, stuffing the stat sheet with 16 first half points of his own while racking up nine boards and three blocked shots.
Philly’s defensive strategy was clear: Possessing little in the way of frontcourt beef or rim protection, the Sixers were bound and determined to pack the paint and force Houston to beat them from the outside. But with Lin raining in shots from downtown and penetrating with ease, and Howard and Patrick Beverley hitting the offensive glass, the Rockets ran into little resistance in their offensive endeavors.
Unfortunately for Houston, the Sixers were able to express the exact same sentiment when they had the ball. James Anderson knocked down all six of his first half shots, three of which came from beyond the arc, prompting some ‘Revenge of the former Rockets’ storylines with the way he was shooting and the ‘Hinkie-ball’ style of play Philly employed while pushing the pace, attacking the rim and knocking down 3s. Meanwhile, Carter-Williams’ replacement, Tony Wroten, put up near triple-double numbers by the halftime break, the Sixers lived in the paint due to their ability to make mincemeat of Houston’s perimeter D, and the Rockets’ mysterious issues with defensive rebounding continued long enough to allow Philadelphia extra possessions to put even more points on the board.
All in all, the game most definitely had the feel of a contest that would ultimately be won by whichever team proved capable of playing one quarter – or heck, even six minutes – of quality defense.
For a few, fleeting minutes, it appeared as if Houston had done exactly that in the third quarter. The Rockets limited Philadelphia to just 20 points in the period while Lin’s heat level escalated from sizzling to searing. The 3s kept ripping the twine. The no-look passes whistled their way past befuddled defenders into the hands of Rockets players for layups, dunks and more triples. When the period ended, Lin had 28 points and 10 assists, Howard had his double-double as well and Houston finally had a little breathing room with a 10-point lead.
It wasn’t just Lin and Howard, though; seemingly all signs pointed to a Rockets win. The club’s ball movement was far and away the best it’s been this season. The rock was swinging from side-to-side with all the alacrity that’s been so absent for much of the year and, as they so often do in such situations, everyone was benefiting. Every single Houston starter finished with double figure scoring and the club was just a single Patrick Beverley rebound and three Chandler Parsons assists away from having every member of its starting five record a double-double. Think about how absurd that is for a second. All told, the Rockets assisted on 34 of their 43 made baskets while also racking up season-highs in made 3s (15) and blocked shots (also 15).
All of which, in retrospect, only makes the ending even harder to swallow from a Houston perspective.
With about five minutes remaining and the Rockets up by nine, all that beautiful ball movement started to fall apart amid a rash of turnovers. The defensive breakdowns revealed themselves once more as far too often Houston’s perimeter defense sprung leaks allowing the Sixers a plethora of good looks at the basket, be they of the layup or wide open 3 variety. And goodness gracious, did James Anderson make them pay in the most painful way possible.
A couple notes here before continuing:
- At one point it appeared as if the Rockets had actually made the necessary defensive plays to save this game. Parsons flew in for a beautiful block with 41 seconds left to preserve Houston’s 1-point lead and 20 seconds later Patrick Beverley looked to have rescued the Rockets with a tremendous hustle play to pick Evan Turner’s pocket and get himself to the line where he made both free throws and put his team up three.
- You already know what happened next. With Tony Wroten (who eventually did record his triple-double, by the way) seemingly lost under the basket, he heaved a pass back out to the perimeter that somehow found its way into Anderson’s hands seconds before he launched the game-tying 3 right in J-Lin’s grill. Look, the Rockets’ defense wasn’t good for the vast majority of the night. And yes, the team’s turnover issues, defensive lapses and missed free throws certainly didn’t help them in their failed efforts to put this game away. But Anderson’s last-second triple now represents the third time in a mere nine games that Houston has been burned by a remarkable shot, and part of that is just plain, old bad luck. Steve Blake got open thanks to a defensive breakdown, but Rudy Gay and Anderson nailed their 3s with men draped all over them. Those are extremely low percentage shots that will bounce harmlessly off the rim the vast majority of the time. Houston’s win probability in all three contests was very much in their favor. But hey, that’s why you don’t play close games. Fluke occurrences happen and playing the odds doesn’t always work out in your favor. Consider this the second official reminder of the young season.
Overtime wasn’t pretty. At one point the Rockets had missed 10 straight shots until a Howard and-1 stopped the bleeding and temporarily tied the game. Lin (who finished with 34 points and 12 assists but also 8 turnovers) poured in another pair of 3-pointers to keep Houston afloat while tying the Rockets’ franchise record for made 3s in a game (9 – a mark he now co-owns with Robert Horry). But the crucial stops Houston needed to emerge victorious never came.
These are harsh, bitter lessons to learn. But better to digest them now than later. For as much as this loss will sting, there is a degree of solace to be found in the ball movement the Rockets employed for much of the evening. That sort of unselfish play can carry them a long way if paired with a similarly unselfish, attentive and energetic effort on the defensive end. This team can put points on the board – we’ve known that from day one of training camp. For them to get where they want to be, however, they must make major strides when it comes to preventing their opponents from doing the same.
Their next chance comes tomorrow night on the national stage in New York City against the Knicks.
HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE
Q: Was there something specifically that changes in these fourth quarters when you’re up?
I don’t know. We try to do too much instead of letting the ball do the work. Normally, if we’re playing well enough, the ball does a lot of the work for us and it’s going from side to side. You get an eight, nine or 10-point lead, and it’s just we don’t play the same type of basketball.
Q: Was there a point where maybe you felt comfortable with a game like this tonight?
We started off so badly defensively, they got everything they wanted. They had the momentum. James Anderson was making everything tonight. We got some stops. We got the lead at one point and stretched it out a little bit, but we just couldn’t maintain anything. That’s kind of been the story of our year all year, we aren’t able to maintain a level, and we have to find a way to do that.
Q: A scoring drought in the fourth quarter into the overtime, was that just a result of missed shots? Did you get the shots you wanted?
Well, we started driving in and going into areas we shouldn’t be going in. Just making the simple play is what we did, we had guys around the perimeter all night long, simple play, simple play, and then we started trying to make the tough play. Trying to make too many tough plays just doesn’t work.
Q: These games with a double-digit fourth quarter leads, what’s changing?
I have to go back and watch. It’s frustrating. I’m not really sure. In my mind, the problem started in the first quarter when we came out, I came out and our team came out lackadaisical on defense. We let them get going, we let them feel good and all of a sudden it’s a whole different ball game. I definitely need to do a better job. Down the stretch, I have to look at it, I think we had a lot of turnovers in the second half and we didn’t get stops, and when we did get stops, we didn’t get the rebounds.
Q: Was there any point where you guys felt comfortable at all in this kind of game. Is this just the type of game where nothing felt right?
Especially with this type of game, because the pace is so fast and we’re both really young and explosive teams, no lead is safe. I don’t want to put a number on it unless it’s significantly larger than what we had tonight.
Philadelphia 76ers Head Coach Brett Brown
Q: This is exactly what you expected from Tony Wroten?
No doubt. I thought James Anderson and Tony played exactly like we thought.
Q: Is that opportunity or development?
I think it’s both. I hope it’s both. What do you say? Both of them had great games. James, I think, reaped the benefit of a team that came into the game committed on moving the ball more. We really felt that we didn’t represent our teamwork, and our chemistry and camaraderie, and all those types of things well at all versus San Antonio, and we wanted to improve on that, and our group did. We moved the ball, and I think that James Anderson reaped the benefit of that.
Q: And you win despite seven turnovers in the fourth quarter. It made it difficult, but you still kind of hung in and made plays.
I didn’t even know that number. It felt like every one of those. We made foul shots down the stretch. I think we made 11 out of our last 12. Again, the group found a way to come back after a 10-point deficit going into the fourth. We didn’t really end that period on a high note at all, and to the group’s credit, we found a way to claw back in it. I thought the crowd was great, and the players stayed together and kept working at it, and finally things broke and we were able to come up with a great win for us given the way we played the last game.
Philadelphia 76ers Guard Tony Wroten
Q: Do you approach things any differently when you start as opposed to when you come off the bench?
That was actually my first time starting, so there’s a first time for everything. I just came in a little more focused, and I had to bring it earlier.
Q: That pass that you threw from the corner over the top that James [Anderson] caught and hit the three, what did you see?
Out of the timeout I told him, “I’m going to come off the screen, and I’m going to hit you in the corner,” but there was a player who denied him, so he wasn’t open, so I kept probing, and I ran out of options, and he’s hot so I just threw it up to him, and it was fortunate for him to make that.
Q: Were you surprised that he came down with it?
No, I just knew Jeremy Lin was face-guarding him so he didn’t see the ball. So that’s why I just threw it up to him, and that’s how he caught it.
Philadelphia 76ers Guard James Anderson
Q: Just talk about the game you had…
I just kind of got a rhythm early, and guys did a good job of finding me throughout the game and just kind of got me going.
Q: When you have that opportunity and you make the most of it, how satisfying is that for you?
It’s really satisfying. I think that I put a lot of work in, and I finally see it paying off.
Q: Talk about that three at the end of regulation…
Tony had already told me he was going to look for me, but I was kind of in the wrong spot. Somehow he still found me, and I was just fortunate enough to get a shot up, and it went in.
Q: Did you change your game from college, when people considered you a scorer, into being the shooter that obviously we’re certainly seeing tonight?
I think it’s kind of the other way around. I think I was more of a shooter in college and kind of changed it around once I got into the league. It’s kind of inconsistent on shooting threes because guys are running me off and are a lot bigger. So I had to kind of change and adjust, so I just kind of added some little stuff to my game.
To begin, a breakdown of each team’s current standing with regard to the four factors:
Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):
Philadelphia: 50.8% (NBA rank: 12th)
Houston: 52% (NBA rank: 4th)
Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):
Philadelphia: 17.8 (23rd)
Houston: 19.0 (28th)
Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)
Philadelphia: 49.5% (19th); offensive rebound rate: 24.4% (20th); defensive rebound rate: 72.3% (24th)
Houston: 53.7% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 29.1% (7th); defensive rebound rate: 72.5% (23rd)
Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):
Philadelphia: .171 (27th)
Houston: .346 (1st)
A few things to note while perusing those numbers:
- In some ways it’s rather remarkable that the Rockets rank fourth in the league in effective field goal percentage given that, up to this point in the season, they’ve still yet to consistently find the range from 3-point land. Only three of the team’s players (Jeremy Lin, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi) are shooting better than 29 percent from downtown – a big reason why Houston is 23rd in the NBA in 3-point shooting at just 31.2 percent – and nearly a third of Houston’s field goal attempts are taken from behind the arc. When those shots start falling - and they will - the Rockets’ offense (still 6th in the league despite the errant 3-point shooting) promises to be scary good.
- Houston’s defensive rebounding has been disappointing to date, especially in light of the fact that the Rockets boast two of the best rebounders on the planet in Dwight Howard (3rd in defensive rebound rate) and Omer Asik (8th). That said, it’s worth pointing out that Houston has also played a schedule loaded with great offensive rebounding teams. The Raptors, Jazz, Blazers, Mavericks and Clippers all reside in the top-10 in the league in offensive rebound rate and those clubs account for six of the Rockets’ first eight games to date. Given Philadelphia’s dearth of interior beef and rebounding prowess, there’s no reason why the Rockets should not own the battle of the boards on both ends tonight.
- While the Sixers don’t spend much time at the free throw line, they’ve also done an excellent job to date keeping their opponents away from the charity stripe as well. Philly ranks first in the NBA in opponent free throw rate, but they’ll be hard pressed to stay on that lofty perch while playing a Rockets team that absolutely lives on the line. Houston comes into the contest averaging 39.1 free throw attempts per game – a figure that is 7.5 FTAs per game greater than second place Charlotte. For additional perspective, last year’s league leaders, the Los Angeles Lakers, averaged 27.9 free throw attempts per game. As far as parades to the line go, right now the Rockets are Macy’s and the Tournament of Roses all rolled into one.
- Both teams ought to feel right at home with the up-tempo style of play tonight’s game promises to deliver: The Sixers are third in the league in pace; Houston sits sixth.
Know Thy Enemy
The rebuilding Sixers have been one of the early season surprises to date, sporting a 4-4 record that includes a pair of shocking upset wins over Miami and Chicago. That’s due in part to playing faster and smarter (for example: last season Philly led the league in mid-range shot attempts per game; this year they’re in the bottom-5 of that category), but it’s also the result of three players in particular who are exceeding expectations and playing extraordinarily well. Michael Carter-Williams is the early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Evan Turner appears well on his way to experiencing his breakout season, and Spencer Hawes is shooting and rebounding at career-high levels.
Let’s take a look at each player’s respective shot chart to see how they’re getting the job done on the offensive end of the floor. We start with the team leader in PER, Spencer Hawes, who’s averaging 15.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting nearly 54 percent from the field and better than 48 percent from behind the arc - all numbers that would blow away his career-highs in those categories.
While perusing Hawes’ shot chart, bear in mind that he used to take a ton of long 2s. Those days, however, appear to be over. With a regime change led by new General Manager Sam Hinkie and head coach Brett Brown, the Sixers have emphasized smarter shot selection and nowhere can that be more clearly seen than in Hawes’ newfound approach. All those 22-footers have now turned into 3s, with both the 7th-year center and his team benefitting greatly from the shift in shot selection. Hawes’ shooting will likely cool off somewhat, but his overall effectiveness should still remain at a career-best level so long as he continues to employ his current approach.
Now for a look at Evan Turner, who enters tonight’s contest averaging 23 points per game on 50.7 percent shooting from the field (his career averages: 10.5 ppg and 43.3 percent shooting):
Turner’s early success, like Hawes’, can be traced in part to an altered approach that plays far more to his strengths. Last season the fourth-year swingman attempted nearly 7 shots per game from between 10-to-23 feet from the basket. He’s now cut that number by more than half, focusing instead on attacking the basket via pick-and-rolls and in transition. The results speak for themselves and figure to place a premium on the rim protection provided by Howard and Asik tonight.
Lastly, a look at Michael Carter-Williams’s electric start to the season:
It’s a bit of a shock to the system to see a right-handed player enjoy virtually all of his success on the opposite side of the floor. That will surely even out as the season progresses and the sample size grows larger, but MCW’s ability to make plays even when forced left is definitely something to note, as are his struggles when finishing at the rim – something that doesn’t figure to be made any easier by the presence of Howard and Asik.
In The Spotlight
Speaking of point guards off to outstanding starts to the season, Jeremy Lin has been terrific offensively in 2013-14, recording career-best shooting numbers (his true shooting percentage is a ridiculous 66.6 percent – a number that would have easily led all perimeter players a year ago) and a career-high free throw rate as well. He ranks third on the Rockets in total plus/minus with a +32, placing him behind only Omri Casspi (+65) and Francisco Garcia (+37), and he currently resides in the league’s 90th percentile in terms of scoring efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, according to Synergy Sports. And though there were stretches last season when the Lin-Harden pairing struggled to find its footing, that combo has had no such issues this season while posting a net rating of +8.3 points per 100 possessions during the 208 minutes of floor time they’ve shared together this season, according to NBA.com. And Houston's dual point guard backcourt of Lin and Patrick Beverley has been tremendous, too, sporting a net rating of +17.5 in 61 minutes of shared playing time.
Last but not least, it wouldn’t be a Rockets game preview these days without an update on the team’s myriad nagging injuries and issues with illness. All of Houston’s players participated in this morning’s shootaround, but Harden (foot), Chandler Parsons (back), Francisco Garcia and Beverley (both players are under the weather) are all being listed as game-time decisions.