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Game Day: Rockets vs. Kings

Analysis and observations from Houston's 110-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings

Rockets vs. Kings - 12/31/2013

  • Kings vs. Rockets
    Rudy Gay scores 25 points and DeMarcus Cousins adds 17 points and nabs 16 boards as the Kings beat the Rockets on the road 110-106.
  • Chandler Parsons: 12/31
    Chandler Parsons addresses the media following the Rockets loss to Sacramento.
  • Jeremy Lin: Post Game 12/31
    Jeremy Lin addresses the media following the Rockets loss to Sacramento.
  • Dwight Howard: Post Game 12/31
    Dwight Howard addresses the media following the Rockets loss to Sacramento.
  • Harden Hits 38
    James Harden scores 38 points connecting on 12 of his 26 attempts, grabbing 10 rebounds and getting 2 steals in a loss at home 110-106 versus the Kings.
  • James Harden: Post Game 12/31
    James Harden addresses the media following the Rockets loss to Sacramento.
  • McHale: 12/31 Post Game
    Kevin McHale addresses the media following the Rockets loss to Sacramento.
  • Wide Receiver
    Dwight Howard rebounds the ball and makes the overhead pass to James Harden receiving on the other end and converting the layup.
  • Kings vs. Rockets: First half
    Rudy Gay scores 17 points and Marcus Thornton adds 15 points as the Kings lead the Rockets at halftime 58-52.
  • Hoop And The Harm
    Dwight Howard scores the hook in the lane and takes a hard foul.

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings:

There is at least a decent chance that the Rockets will one day look back on Tuesday night's 110-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings as being a blessing in disguise. Several players even suggested as much in the somber post-game interview sessions that followed. This could be a wake-up call and a call to arms; an opportunity to finally put an end to the cycle of inconsistent efforts that have thus far plagued the Rockets and stunted their progress on the path toward becoming a championship-caliber team.

But in the immediate wake of defeat, there primarily existed only disappointment and disbelief about another lost opportunity and another loss to a team occupying the lower levels of NBA achievement. 

Instead of New Year's Eve cheer and merriment there was only the maudlin strains of a song that has become all too familiar over the course of Houston's 2013-14 campaign. The Rockets' effort to begin the game was deemed lacking. Its execution, especially on the defensive end of the floor, simply wasn't good enough. And though Houston would eventually right the ship and seize control on occasion, ultimate success proved fleeting as the club's earlier follies came back to haunt them in the end.

"We’ve been doing it for a few weeks now," lamented Houston Head Coach Kevin McHale. "We’re not playing at a level every single night that we’ve got to play at. That’s just energy and effort and all those things. Forget the shots going in or out – shooting is going to come and go. But it’s the other things you have to bring every night."

Indeed, while some might understandably pin a significant amount of blame on the Rockets' latest bout of innaccurate long-distance shooting (Houston hit just 7-of-28 from beyond the arc), the club's continued breakdowns, of both the mental and physical variety, on the defensive end seem to be the far more pressing big picture issue at present.

Too many times Sacramento's perimeter playmakers got to their preferred spots on the floor or were simply allowed to run free off screens due to miscommunication, a lack of effort, or both. As a result, the Kings racked up 58 points in the first half and another 30 in the decisive fourth quarter. The tell-tale moment: Just when it seemed the Rockets had seized control of the game for good after having taken a 6-point lead with five minutes remaining, Sacramento rookie Ben McLemore found himself wide-open for a corner 3 to cut Houston's lead in half. Those sorts of mistakes were plentiful Tuesday night. And they ultimately led to the Rockets' demise. 

To be sure, there exists plenty of time for Houston to clean up its act and fulfil its immense potential as a team. And whenever questions of energy and perimeter defense arise, they hammer home the importance of a player like the injured Patrick Beverley. But as Dwight Howard said in the wake of this latest defeat, the time for talking is over. If the Rockets are to one day look back on this disappointment as a blessing in disguise, they must master the lessons it offers and start proving it night after night on the court. 

OBSERVATIONS

- Sloppy, sloppy start to this game for Houston. Despite the leaky Sacramento defense consisting of little more than reaching and fouling, the Rockets scored just 23 points on 24 first quarter possessions with some suspect outside shooting, decision-making and too many turnovers sabotaging the team’s ability to take full advantage of a Kings’ D that has been in an exceedingly generous holiday spirit all year.

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Such offensive scuffling wasn’t likely to last for long – and it didn’t – but it did allow Sacramento to build itself a 5-point cushion by the time the period was through.

- After going scoreless in the first quarter, Dwight Howard spent the vast majority of the second period bullying Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray. Howard took just a single shot in the opening quarter, but then exploded for 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the second. Related: The Rockets scored 22 of their 28 second quarter points inside the paint. Double related: Sacramento’s defense concedes the league’s second-highest opponent field goal percentage from inside the restricted area.

- But while Houston’s offense found its groove in the second quarter, the team’s defensive effort was nowhere close to where it needed to be. James Harden, in particular, looked a step slow while Marcus Thornton, he of the 10.95 PER, went supernova, scoring 15 first half points. Chandler Parsons also struggled in his efforts to slow Rudy Gay, who looked well on his way to producing a second straight uber efficient performance against the Rockets during the first two periods of play. Gay hit halftime with a game-high 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field (he would go on to finish with 25 points on 9-of-19 shooting).

As a result, the Kings brought a 58-52 lead to the break, despite the fact Houston shot nearly 59 percent from the field in the first half.

- Houston finally started generating some consistent stops on the defensive end in the third period and, lo and behold, the net result was a bevy of points via transition and their early offense. It also allowed the Rockets to take full advantage of a suddenly scorching hot Harden, who ripped off 16 points in the period, all while attempting just 6 official shots from the field.

"We’re really good offensively but we’re really, really good when we get stops and we can go out and get people off balance in transition," Parsons said after the game. "The more stops we get, the better our offense will be so I don’t know why we don’t do that every single possession every single night."

- Anytime you watch a Sacramento game, you know you’re doing to be treated to a handful of moments when the Kings are gonna King (translation: Sacramento still specializes in producing more head-scratching moments that any other team in the NBA). During one such sequence, the Toyota Center faithful were treated to a series of crazy Kings decisions and wild shots, though none were finer than Thornton’s obvious clear path foul on Harden, granting Houston two free throws and possession of the ball. Because, you know, anytime you can give the opposing team three or four points instead of two, you have to do it. And while we’re here, it should be pointed out that the real Marcus Thornton returned in time for the second half. 

- The Rockets' energy was better by leaps and bounds in the third quarter. Houston not only got stops, they consistently got to loose balls, too. The end result: a 34-22 period that gave the Rockets a 6-point edge heading to the final frame.

- One of many things that will haunt Houston when they review the film from tonight’s performance: the Rockets failed to take advantage of the minutes when Isaiah Thomas was on the bench resting and the typically flammable Jimmer Fredette was manning the point in his place. Fredette finished just -1 this evening – a big win for Sacramento given the way the Kings have consistently lost the plot whenever Thomas is grabbing a breather this season.

- Terrence Jones. Dunk of the night. Book it. No more applications are necessary.

- The Rockets seemed to come up with approximately 99.86 percent of the available loose balls in the second half. All told, they grabbed a whopping 11 offensive rebounds during the final two quarters of play. And yet … well, you know how this eventually turned out.

- Harden was incredible on the offensive end in the second half. He scored 26 points in the game’s final 24 minutes and finished with a season-high 38. But he won’t remember the final minute too terribly fondly. With the game on the line, he turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions during that stretch. DeMarcus Cousins, meanwhile, was simply masterful on both ends, hitting consecutive buckets before drawing a game-changing charge on Harden to effectively seal the deal for Sacramento.

- With the loss, Houston falls to 21-13 on the season. Mercifully, their 6-games-in-9-days stretch is finally behind them, and they'll now play just twice over the course of the next nine days. Up next: the New York Knicks Friday night at Toyota Center.

Have a very happy and abundantly blessed beginning of 2014, everyone.

NOTES AND QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On the teams' energy) “We didn't start off with great energy. We came in at halftime and I thought we had a little bit more, more burst in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter, again, we dried up. We've played some poor games and that was another. We just didn't have...we just played poorly. For the life of me, it's hard to put your finger on it. It just feels hard when you're watching. It just feels hard out there for guys to play. It just doesn't feel like we're in much of a rhythm. We've done that off and on all year. The last two home games we got away with it by having a big fourth (quarter), but you just can't do that.”

(On what was talked about at halftime) “We just talked about energy and effort and coming out and communicating and playing together. All the things that we talk about all the time. Like I said, I don't know. We just didn't seem to have any pop and we...our pop is coming and going. Sometimes we have it and other times we have no pop...no zip...coming out and just banging and hitting on all cylinders. I thought Terrence (Jones) played with good pop tonight. He was active and stuff. We've got (to have) five or six guys playing with that type of pop, not one or two”

(On running the offense through Dwight Howard) “We tried getting it in there a few times (in the post), but they fronted and moved around and stuff, and we didn't make clean entry passes. I thought that he had a nice stretch in the second (quarter). We tried to go back to him, but in the third quarter we were running up and down and attacking, kind of in our flow game. We've got to make sure we keep him involved. He made some nice passes out of the post and stuff. Like I said they fronted a little bit and made it harder to get it in there.”

(On team's 3-point shooting) “That's a concern somewhat. That'll come around. I'm more concerned about our pop and our energy. We've got to come out with more thrust and just more attack...defensively, too.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On sluggish start and improvement in second half) “We were just playing harder, the first half we were just sluggish, we didn’t come out with any energy. The second half we just played a lot harder. We can’t keep coming up short and coming out with these slow first halves.”

(On the play in the fourth quarter) “Exactly, playing with fire and you get burned. The first half we played sluggish, we played slow, we didn’t guard at all. We gave up like 58 points. The second half we played with a lot of energy and played defense and our offense came along.”

JEREMY LIN

(On slow start) “We came out slow in the first half. When you flirt with that, at some point, it’s going to catch up with us like it did tonight. We have to come out and play harder and have to be more hungry and play harder.

(On the trend of games starting and ending like this) “Right, I know what you are saying. I think that’s just life in general. Things are going really well when you are getting away. You think you can get away with it, and then you get comfortable. But this might be a blessing in disguise for us, we have a stretch coming up and hopefully we come out and learn from this and start the new year off with a nice little win streak. That would be nice.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the Rockets problems defensively) “We have to have a certain mindset to start every single game. We can’t tip toe into the game and feel out. We have to come out aggressive. We have to be the aggressor. We can’t let teams get comfortable. We’ve got to make unselfish plays on defense and offense and we have to prepare for every game no matter who we are playing, like it’s a really good team and a team that is capable of beating us. We went through a lot of experience this year and to know we can lose on any given night and we can win on any given night. So we have to figure out individually and collectively. What we can do and look in the mirror and see how you can help our team win.”

(On what the Rockets need to do to get back on track) “It’s frustrating. We have leaders on this team. We’re going to get together and we’re going to figure this out. It’s just frustrating losing to teams we shouldn’t lose to on your home floor. Defensively, we’ve go to be better. I think that’s where it all starts. We’re really good offensively, but we’re really, really good when we get stops and we can get out and get people off balance and go in transition. The more stops we get, the better our offense would be.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the Rockets inconsistent defensive play) “Everybody has to do their part on defense. Everybody has to play defense better.”

(On the loss) “This team (the Kings) have beaten us twice the same way. We’ve got to learn from it. Until we do, we’ll continue to lose.”

(On the Rockets’ inability to close out the game) “We shouldn’t have let them stick around from the get go. We allowed that to happen and they played with confidence in the second half, they hit shots and they got a good win.”

SACRAMENTO KINGS COACH MICHEAL MALONE

(On his team’s effort after the San Antonio game. Did it carry over) “I just told those guys that down the stretch tonight on both ends of the floor I thought we did a much better job. We came out of two timeouts and executed the play to perfection. Rudy (Gay) made a great pass to Ben and to his credit, he knocked it down but he was wide open because Rudy ran the play the right way and we trusted one another. Another timeout, we came out and Isaiah passes it to Marcus who got the easy lay up. We did not crumble and didn't try to do it ourselves, and we did it as a team. Defensively, James Harden is a great player and had 38, but I thought McLemore down the stretch as a team and an individual played very good defense on him. We didn't have the same types of breakdowns the last three minutes of this game.”

(On DeMarcus Cousins play in the fourth quarter) “It was great to see. He's not a shot blocker, that's just the reality. But even if you're not a shot blocker, you can be a great position defender. There are guys like that in the NBA. DeMarcus has proven and shown many times that he's willing to give up his body in these situations. He did it in the San Antonio, Miami games and again tonight. To see him do that and give his body up and give us that extra possession is big time. I thought he had a great game.”

DEMARCUS COUSINS

(On him being up for the game and it being a good victory) “It was a real big win. Just the fact that we ended the year like this. We and a chance to come back, not only here, but on the road trip and we can continue to play off this win. We can use this as momentum to keep getting wins in the new year. I was having fun, getting stops and competing with my team. Absolutely I look forward to games like this. I think the fact that I do look forward to these games got me into early foul trouble. I was so antsy and I was so pumped to play well and I guess you can say that got me into foul trouble. I love games like this.”

ISAIAH THOMAS

(On the teams play down the stretch) “We were just trying to get stops and make plays for each other and that's what's got us the win. We just gave Houston different looks in the fourth quarter. We can't go with the same thing each and every time because it makes us easy to guard. Tonight we got stops and gave them different looks and it was tough to guard. We had some hitters that coach drew up that got us open shots and guys knocked them down and we got the win.”

RUDY GAY

(On his addition helping this team) “I wouldn't say it's on me because Coach has done a great job in putting me in the right positions and that's helped me get comfortable out there.”

(On the fourth quarter) “You have to give a lot of credit to coach to come out here and get everybody in the right spot and put everybody in the right position to help the team. We matured today. We looked like a mature team when we had breakdowns, where I've seen the game turn around. We didn't let the game get away. They went back up on us, but we kept playing the game.”

JIMMER FREDETTE

(On the game) “We were being aggressive out there and moving the ball, but we're really doing a good job getting stops. They got a couple of offensive rebounds but we limited them to one shot and were able to push it up and get good shots and make them. So, we were able to cut the lead down. It was a good start to the fourth quarter and the starters took it from there.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,232 tonight, giving the Rockets 17 sellouts on the season.

The Rockets closed out 2013 with a 110-106 loss to the Kings, which dropped Houston to 0-2 this season against Sacramento. Houston also moved their all-time record to 9-5 (9-3 home, 0-2 away) in games played on New Year’s Eve.

Houston went just 7-of-28 (.250) from beyond the arc tonight. The Rockets have now gone a combined 25-of-106 (.236) from 3-point range over the last four games (12/26/13-12/31/13).

The Kings have now scored 100 or more points in 13 of the last 14 games, which includes the last seven consecutive contests.

James Harden set season highs with 38 points (12-26 FG, 5-11 3FG, 9-11 FT) and 10 rebounds tonight. Harden, who has 30-plus points in eight games on the season, also had 30 points (10-20 FG) last season at Sacramento (2/10/13). Tonight also marked Harden’s third double-double of the season.

Terrence Jones finished with 12 points (6-10 FG), 11 boards, four blocks and two steals tonight. Jones, who now has eight double-doubles on the season, has three or more blocked shots in three of the last five games.

Dwight Howard netted 15 points (5-9 FG, 5-11 FT), Jeremy Lin added 14 points (7-10 FG) and Chandler Parsons went for 13 points (5-11 FG) to put all five Rockets starters in double-figure scoring in each of the last two home games.

Rudy Gay led six Kings in double-digit scoring with 25 points (9-19 FG, 6-6 FT) tonight. Gay has now netted 20 or more points in seven of the 10 games he has played for the Kings.

DeMarcus Cousins posted 17 points (7-13 FG), 16 rebounds and four steals tonight, marking his team-leading 18th double-double of 2013-14.

Isaiah Thomas racked up his fourth double-double of the season with 17 points (6-17 FG) and 10 assists tonight. His key 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter also kept his 3-point streak a live (1-4 3FG). Thomas has now made at least one 3-pointer in each of the last 24 games (11/13/13-12/31/13) and currently holds the fourth-longest streak in franchise history.

Marcus Thornton came off the bench with 15 points (6-9 FG, 3-5 3FG) tonight. Thornton has now scored in double-figures in nine games, which includes a pair of 20-point outings.

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Sacramento Kings (9-20) at Houston Rockets (21-12)

Point Differential:

Sacramento: -3.8 (NBA rank: 23rd)

Houston: +3.4 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 102.6 (15th)

Houston: 107.4 (3rd)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 106.5 (28th)

Houston: 102.4 (12th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Sacramento: 96.52 (17th)

Houston: 98.20 (6th)

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):

Sacramento: 48.4% (21st)

Houston: 53.2% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 15.1 (10th)

Houston: 16.8 (26th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Sacramento: 50.2% (13th); offensive rebound rate: 26.2% (13th); defensive rebound rate: 75.7% (9th)

Houston: 51.9% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 26.9% (9th); defensive rebound rate: 73.7% (20th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Sacramento: .301 (9th)

Houston: .394 (1st)

Very little went the Rockets’ way when these two teams met for the first time this season back on December 15 in Sacramento. Before the game, Houston found out that Jeremy Lin would be sidelined with back spasms and Terrence Jones was going to be severely limited due to illness. That news seemed to set the tone for the Rockets’ evening because things hardly got better from there. Dwight Howard found himself in foul trouble mere minutes into the first quarter. Houston’s offense strangely sputtered from the second quarter on against the Kings’ traditionally leaky D. So by the time James Harden sprained his ankle to start the third period, the writing seemed indelibly emblazoned on the walls of Sleep Train Arena: this was not going to be Houston’s night. Sure enough, a remarkably efficient Rudy Gay (26 points), DeMarcus Cousins (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Isaiah Thomas (19 points, 8 assists) made certain those words rang true as the Kings carried the day, running away with a 106-91 win.

Sacramento is just 3-6 since acquiring Gay in a trade with Toronto and still stands above only Utah in the Western Conference standings. But the Kings’ schedule has been brutal during that stretch and their last two games have seen them knock off Miami and give the Spurs all they could handle in defeat. The Rockets ought not need reminders to the reality that greets them today, but if they do the message can be seen in bright, bold letters: this is not a team to be taken lightly.

Know Thy Enemy

- The Kings’ offense has been better since Gay’s arrival, scoring at a borderline top-10 rate of 104 points per 100 possessions during the nine games he’s played with his new team. Sacramento’s defense, however, has been nothing short of sieve-like over that time, posting a defensive rating of 109.7 which would be the worst in the league if that number held for the season. That said, it should be noted that the Kings have played top-10 offenses in all but two of those games.

Nonetheless, Gay’s plus/minus is -53 during his 327 minutes as a King – the second-worst mark on the team since his arrival, behind only the -60 accrued by rookie Ben McLemore.

- There is little doubt regarding the identity of Sacramento’s bell cow to date. The Kings have held their own virtually anytime Isaiah Thomas has been on the floor this season, but things have a tendency to get ugly in a hurry whenever he grabs a breather. Since Gay’s arrival, the Kings have a net rating of -18.7 whenever Thomas sits, posting an anemic offensive rating of 91 and a defensive efficiency mark of 109.7 during that time. That sort of dramatic differential has manifested itself throughout the Kings’ season to date as well, with Sacramento owning a net rating of -11.4 throughout the 2013-14 campaign to date when Thomas is off the floor – a mark that is far and away the highest on the team.

The fact is Sacramento simply has no one who can come anywhere close to duplicating the remarkable skill set possessed by its diminutive point guard. Then again, few teams do. Thomas owns the third-best PER (22.78) in the NBA at his position, and is deadly as a scorer via both the pick-and-roll and in isolation where Synergy places him in the 83rd and 90th percentile in those categories, respectively.

The 24-year-old has shone particularly bright in the fourth quarter: he’s averaging 6.6 points per game in the final frame this season – the seventh-best such mark in the league. James Harden, by the way, is second in the NBA – behind only Golden State’s Steph Curry – with an average of 7.5 points per game in the fourth quarter.

- For some time now, Sacramento’s Achilles heel has been its work on the defensive side of the floor and the story remains the same this season. The Kings have been successful in limiting opponents to the fewest number of shots per game from the restricted area, but when those attempts go up they’re going through the hoop at the second-highest rate (65.5 percent) in the league. That dearth of rim protection figures to be severely tested tonight against the Rockets who rank in the NBA’s top-5 in both attempts and makes from the restricted area which helps explain why Houston is third in the league in paint points per game (50.1).

Sacramento also allows the second-most number of corner 3s per game (7) and opponents have been hitting those at a very healthy clip of 44.3 percent. In fact, Kings opponents are shooting nearly 40 percent from deep on the season – the highest percentage in the league, and a figure that should be just what the doctor ordered for a Houston team that’s knocked down just 30 percent of its 3s during the month of December – the lowest such mark in the league during that time.

One last note on the Kings’ woeful D:  Sacramento’s transition defense ranks 29th in the league on a points per possession basis per Synergy. The Rockets, by the way, possess the NBA’s fourth-best transition attack.

In the spotlight

If it seems like Terrence Jones has been particularly monstrous at home, that suspicion can be confirmed with a quick glance at the numbers. Inside the friendly Toyota Center confines, Houston’s second-year power forward is averaging 13.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game (his road splits, by the way: 7.7, 5.7 and .6 while logging about four fewer minutes per contest). What’s more, the Rockets are 12-2 on their home floor when Jones sees playing time this season.

Injury Update

Omer Asik (thigh/knee), Greg Smith (knee) and Patrick Beverley (hand) are all out for tonight’s matchup.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.