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Game Day: Rockets vs. Lakers

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 99-98 loss to the Lakers

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Lakers Thursday night at Toyota Center:

Post-game:

Another game, another rough start for the Rockets. Houston’s offense actually generated plenty of good looks in the early going; the problem was they couldn’t knock them down. Here’s how bad it got: At one point in the second quarter the Rockets missed seven straight free throws, James Harden and Chandler Parsons failed to connect on a fast break alley-oop and even the previously en fuego Francisco Garcia couldn’t find joy on a wide-open transition 3.

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As for the other end of the floor, well … it’s just a wee bit tougher to find kind words to describe the club’s effort in that area. As any underdog should do, the Lakers increased the variance by letting it fly early and often from downtown, and they built a big lead by draining them in bunches. OK, so 11-of-14 from beyond the arc – which is what LA did in the first half – is absurd (and unsustainable) but the Lakers’ shooters were certainly aided in no small part by the Rockets’ all-too-frequent negligence of their opponents' whereabouts. Houston’s poor perimeter and transition defense were a toxic combination and it contributed greatly to the Lakers’ 64-50 halftime edge.

- Pewter linings: In today’s preview (scroll down if you’d like to check it out) I mentioned Jeremy Lin’s success creating points on his many drives to the basket. J-Lin didn’t disappoint against the leaky Laker interior D, scoring 8 first half points – all via attacking the rim – while dishing out 3 assists.

- Though his defense was again shaky, James Harden made life miserable for Los Angeles with his incredible ability to relentlessly attack the basket and draw fouls as well. Harden led a Houston parade to the free throw line in the first half, going 11-for-13 from the line as the Rockets went to the charity stripe a whopping 27 times through the first two quarters of play. The Lakers, meanwhile, took just six free throws total.

- Still, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey succinctly summed up the prevailing sentiment at halftime with this infallible tweet:

- As hot as the Lakers were from deep, the Rockets were just as icy through the first three quarters. As it had all night, Houston got plenty of high quality, open looks from beyond the arc – they simply couldn’t convert them into points. The Rockets were just 5-of-20 from downtown heading to the final frame.

- Despite lacking their long-range shooting touch, the Rockets still managed to rally thanks in large part to Harden, Lin and a heavy dose of small-ball. Both players’ ability to shred defenses on their way to the rim proved pivotal to Houston’s comeback as they repeatedly gouged Los Angeles’ porous interior D (just as today’s preview suggested! OK, no more pimping my own product – it’s unbecoming, I know). The Lakers seemed powerless to keep them out of the paint – a vulnerability that was further exposed when Houston spread the floor with its small-ball lineups. Even though the Rockets weren’t making their 3s, the mere threat posed by all those shooters beyond the arc provided plenty of delectable driving lanes for Lin and Harden to feast upon.

- Today’s hard-core hoops analysis: The Rockets are SO much when they actually play defense. It is of course no coincidence that Houston finally managed to close the gap when its players finally became fully engaged on the defensive end. Sometime around the mid-way part of the third quarter, the Rockets’ defenders started tightening up their rotations, applying effective ball-pressure and more consistently closing out on shooters. You already know what that led to: more missed shots from LA and more transition opportunities for Houston to score easy buckets and get the crowd pumped up. Moments like this, for instance. That might be the best dunk of Parsons’ career. Sorry about that, Chris Kaman.

- The drive to crunch time may not have always been pretty, but it was still fascinating to see the Rockets get their first taste of playing in a close game this season. One of the things I’ve been curious to find out: which lineups will Head Coach Kevin McHale lean on the most when the game is on the line this year? Our sample size is now officially at one in that category and Houston’s first crunch time lineup featured Lin, Beverley, Harden, Parsons and Howard. The results: hack-a-Howard (predictably), the Rockets’ most fervent defense of the evening, a heaping helping of shaky late-game execution (from both sides) and, most relevantly, a heartbreaking loss for Houston.

To be sure, tonight’s contest shone a spotlight on the myriad issues this team must address which begin, of course, with improved effort and attention to detail on the defensive end. The Rockets lost way too many LA shooters during the opening half and, though their defense was far better in the second 24 minutes, when they could least afford it Houston inexcusably allowed Steve Blake to run open off a screen, receive a direct pass from the in-bounder, and knock down the game-winning 3 with 1.3 seconds left on the clock. That just can’t happen. And for that matter, neither can the mistakes and missed opportunities Houston had to put the game away and make the threat of such last-second heroics an impossibility. Remember: great teams don’t win close games; they avoid them.

But the half-full version of this analysis begins with the not-unimportant reality that the Rockets are still 4-2 despite having not come close to playing anything resembling their best game. A well executed, fully engaged 48-minute performance? We’ve yet to see it from them. These are early days for a team still trying to discover its formula for congealing and coalescing into the title-contending club it wants and has the potential to be. What’s most important, by far, is that this team has made that transformation by April, not November.

And as for that full-48 performance? Saturday night against the Clippers would be a good time to bring it.

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On the execution down the stretch) “We didn't execute well down the stretch. We had a couple of things that we were trying to do and we never got into it. It cost us the game. We fought hard the second half. We played much better defense. Our defense in the first half was terrible.

(On team offense) “We didn't have a whole lot of rhythm throughout the entire game. I didn't think our offense ever really got going. They bombarded us early with 3's. We never really kind of got our offense going. We never really got any rhythm on offense. We had a lead down the stretch. We've got to be able to close those games out. We didn't do a good job of executing down the stretch. We had a couple of mismatches and they started fouling quite a bit, so we couldn't get into any of out offensive stuff. Then, later on, we tried getting into a couple of things that we didn't get into. We've got to be able to get into our offense down the stretch and attack and put them on their heels.”

(On the last play) “One thing we said, we were going to switch everything out. We switched late. We had a mistake and we didn't get out, and (Steve) Blake hit a big 3. We switched late. We were switching one through five at that point.”

(On taking Dwight Howard out) “He's going to be in a lot of games. He made a couple. We're just going to have to make some free throws. It wasn't just Dwight tonight. We were 33-of-52 from the line. We didn't shoot free throws very well and that doesn't help the cause.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On what happened defensively which left Steve Blake open on the game winning shot) “Guys just kind of messed up on the play. It happens, we just have to come back next game and make sure we have a better start. We got back into the game but we didn't finish them off. There are a lot of things we need to work on.”

(On how frustrating it was missing free throws when fouled) “Our free throws were terrible. We just have to keep working. I have to get back into the gym and continue the work and they will fall.”

(On the frustration of having the game end the way it did) “They hit a tough shot. I think they just had confidence (shooting) all game. In the first half, I think they shot 14 out of 17 or something like that on 3's. Once you give a team rhythm like that, it's tough to come back from.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On the Rockets last possession) “Yeah, just doing what I do. Takes us to victory. I missed a shot, I missed the last pull up. I missed it and we relied on our defense to get us a stop at the last possession and it didn't happen.”

(On Dwight Howard's free throw shooting) “He's working on his free throws. He has confidence to go up there and knock them down. He's working on them every single day. We have confidence that he will go up there and make them.”

(On Mike D'Antoni going to hack a Howard to his shooting) “I was in a rhythm. I was in a rhythm. When he started fouling Dwight, that slows us down, that slows our pace down and what we like to do, that's good coaching.”

JEREMY LIN

(On his fall) “It hurt, but it's okay. I'll be good for the next game.”

(On being in the second unit) “I'm just getting out, just trying to push the pace when I get in there, be aggressive. Just trying to have as much fun as I can and play basketball. I think us, the second unit, we want to bring as much energy as we can, play with reckless abandonment in some sense. Try to control it, but at the same time try to be a little bit reckless as well and be extremely aggressive.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On coming back from the lead and losing) “First of all, we can't get down that much, (19 points) it's hard to come back from that deficit. We were fighting, fighting, fighting, but things don't go your way. We put ourselves in a situation to win the game and we didn't execute the last play of the game. We didn't deserve to win. Mental mistakes killed us all night long.”

L.A. LAKERS COACH MIKE D’ANTONI

(On how the final play was drawn up) “Well, we did draw it up that way. We were taking the three. Obviously, if we didn’t have it, we were going to try and drive it. We just wanted to win the game and get out of here. (On the ten second play) We had a little miscommunication on who to throw the ball to.”

(On beating the Rockets) “It shows that there are spots that were good and we’re getting a little better. Our guys created energy the whole game and there were spots that were good, but we still have a long ways to go. It’s one game, and their good, and we’re still a work in progress. We were a little sloppy and those are the things that we have to cure. We’re not real secure right now about what we’re doing. With that energy, and that kind of effort and that chemistry, we can get there.”

(On the free throw difference) ”Home town refereeing (laughter), I haven’t heard that in quite awhile. It was because on about fifteen of them, we fouled Dwight (Howard) and then Harden is one that is tough to defend without fouling, and I think that’s normal.”

(On shooting the three to win the game) “They had the momentum and where playing well in front of the home crowd and it was one of those things that I had confidence in Steve (Blake) to be able to hit it. He was hot. We messed up the first play and didn’t run it right, but we got it right finally and it worked out.”

(On Steve Blake’s play) “If you go back to last year, I’m not very surprised at all because he had some very food games down the stretch like this and he’s coming off a little bit of cold shooting this year, but I love the guy, for his effort, for his defense, and he can just play. He doesn’t surprise me.”

STEVE BLAKE

(On how he feels after winning the game in Houston) “It was huge for us as a team. We all contributed and played great defense. As everyone knows, out last two road games we really struggled and got us to keep our confidence and come here and play hard, play well, and what a way to finish the game.”

(On the final play at the ten second mark) “Well Jody (Meeks) wasn’t supposed to throw the ball where he threw it, but that’s ok because we had to make up for each others’ mistakes. Steve (Nash) and I were on the top and kind of circled each other and tried to see if we could get them to make a mistake and when I saw the opportunity to pop out, and then Dwight (Howard) was closing out on me and then I was able to make a shot. I felt like the shot was good, but you really don’t know until it goes in. It felt clean, I shot the ball with confidence and man, thank God for the opportunity. That’s probably the best shot I’ve made in my career. I’ve never quite made a shot like that. It would have been better if the buzzer was going off when it went in, but it was just a great team effort.”

STEVE NASH

(On the win) “It was obviously a great win and a lot of fun for us. We’ve been struggling a little bit, trying to keep our head above water and it was a huge win. It was a great win for us in terms of the belief and some reward for all the hard work and sticking together.”

(On Dwight Howard) “We were just trying to play and beat him (Dwight Howard) and his presence was felt and we felt like we were in pretty good form and playing fairly well. I looked back at tonight and think about how many shots we missed and we just hung around and found away to win at the end.”

(On the final play) “Originally, I think that Steve (Blake) was going to set a pick for me, but I noticed my guy wasn’t going to leave me so I could try and set up Steve (Blake) for an easy shot. I just tried to set a double screen and use my man to set a double screen on his guy and Steve (Blake) did every thing to help us get a win. It looked good (Steve Blake’s shot). I saw him come off wide open and he got his feet set and I felt this has got a chance, and obviously it was pretty and I was happy for him and for our team.”

NICK YOUNG

(On the first half) “We started off with great energy and having fun and sharing the ball and playing D. Everybody had runs and that’s just part of basketball.”

(On the second half) “We kind of were just going through the motions. We were up and down and up and down and somehow we found ourselves in a hole and we had to what we do. We had to the hack-a-Dwight to stay with it and we made some big plays. Blake hit a big shot. This was by far our best win. It was very intense and then we hit that 3-pointer at the end.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sellout crowd of 18,133 marking a third straight sellout at Toyota Center.

The Rockets eliminated a 19-point deficit to take a 98-96 lead tonight, but Steve Blake’s 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left helped the Lakers escape with a 99-98 victory.

Houston went 33-of-52 (.635) from the free throw line tonight, including 25 free throw attempts in the second quarter alone (16-25 FT). The Rockets also attempted 51 free throws vs. Dallas (11/1/13). Prior to this season, Houston had not attempted 50-plus free throws since 2010-11 (51 on 11/24/10 vs. Golden State).

The Lakers, who went 11-of-14 (.786) from beyond the arc in the first half alone, finished 16-of-35 (.457) from downtown tonight. The Lakers came up just one make shy of Houston’s opponent record for 3-pointers made in a game (17 by Phoenix on 1/17/07 and 17 by New York on 11/23/12).

James Harden recorded 35 points (9-24 FG, 14-16 FT), nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocked shots tonight. Harden is the first Rockets player to reach those totals in a game since Hakeem Olajuwon posted 42 points, 13 boards, six assists, five thefts and four blocks back in 1992-93 vs. the L.A. Clippers (4/6/93).

Dwight Howard notched 15 points (5-10 FG, 5-16 FT) and 14 rebounds tonight, which marked his fourth double-double already this season.

Jeremy Lin again came off the bench tonight, registering 16 points (5-8 FG), three assists, thee steals and two blocks.

Jodie Meeks topped six Lakers in double-figure scoring with 18 points (6-9 FG, 5-7 3FG) tonight, which included hitting hit first four consecutive treys.

Steve Blake completed his night with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting from downtown, including the game-winning bucket.

Pau Gasol (12) and Chris Kaman (10) each reached double-figure rebounding totals tonight, helping the Lakers take a 47-44 edge off the glass tonight. It marked the first time this season the Rockets have been outrebounded in a game. Gasol entered tonight’s outing as the NBA leader in defensive rebounding percentage.

Jordan Farmar totaled 11 points (5-12 FG), seven assists and five boards off the bench tonight. Farmar also scored 11 points and handed out seven assists at Dallas (11/5/13).

Pre-game:

Since we can all agree that tonight’s game comes equipped with absolutely zero in the way of built-in storylines, subplots or intrigue, I suppose we might as well turn today’s preview into the Sergeant Joe Friday special and focus on just the facts. Deal? Deal.

So precisely who are these new-look Lakers? Well, for starters they are certainly employing Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s preferred run-and-gun style of play. The Lakers enter tonight’s contest ranked No. 4 in the NBA in pace factor and are 6th in the league in 3-point attempts per game when adjusting for their up-tempo approach (on a per game basis, they’re tied for 3rd overall, averaging 26 3-point attempts per contest). LA has also done an admirable job holding on to the ball while playing full tilt as their turnover ratio puts them in the NBA’s top-5.

Newcomers Nick Young and Chris Kaman have played well, ditto for leftovers Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks, and the Lakers’ reunion with Jordan Farmar has paid early dividends, too. You’ll notice, however, that most of those players have thus far been operating primarily in a reserve role off the bench. And therein lies the rub: Outside of Pau Gasol and with Steve Nash still operating at less than full health, LA has struggled to find consistent, quality production from its still-evolving starting lineup, leaving the team filled with solid role players but bereft of the sort of top-shelf talent necessary to succeed at the league’s highest levels. The results bear that out, too: The Lakers rank 21st and 28th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, and their point differential (-8.2) is the third-worst in the NBA. Only three of their regular rotation players (Farmar, Hill and Wesley Johnson) sport a positive plus/minus. By contrast, every single player in Houston’s rotation resides on the positive side of the ledger. But hey, this is the same Lakers team that ran the high-powered Clippers off the floor on opening night and there’s no doubt LA will be highly motivated to put its best foot forward in front of a primetime audience this evening. Matchups matter, but there are no guarantees in the NBA.

To date, the Lakers’ best moments this season have occurred when they’ve gone small and surrounded a single big, either Hill or Kaman, with shooters (presumably they can go this direction with Gasol as well, but the short stints in which they’ve done so have not yet yielded positive results). But going that route against the Rockets isn’t likely to end well given that small-ball fits smack dab in the middle of Houston’s wheelhouse. As it’s done since day one of the preseason, the Rockets’ offense revs up to ridiculous rates of efficiency the moment the team slides Chandler Parsons or Omri Casspi over to the four-spot.

Time for a little fun with shot selection stats:

- Only three teams in the NBA have allowed more shots within 5 feet of the rim than have the Lakers. Now take a wild guess as to which club attempts the most shots from that area (actually, it’s not the Rockets! Those sneaky Sixers snuck back ahead of them to grab the lead in that category last night). Houston, in fact, has two players in Jeremy Lin (3rd) and James Harden (9th) who rank in the top-10 in the league in terms of the points their team generates on their drives to the basket. According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, the Rockets average 12.6 points per game on Lin’s forays to the rim and 9.4 points per contest on Harden’s. Given LA’s dearth of rim protection and lockdown perimeter defenders, expect Houston to do everything it can to exploit the painted area all night long.

- Speaking of high-value shots, the Lakers have also conceded the 7th-most corner 3s of all teams in the NBA so far this season. The Rockets, meanwhile, rank in the top-5 of the league in terms of corner 3s attempted. Houston has knocked down 38.9 percent of their shots from that area to date, currently placing them 18th in the league in that category. Given the knockdown shooters the Rockets employ – especially as it pertains to the corners – and the sheer number of open looks that players like James Harden and Dwight Howard create given the amount of defensive attention they command, expect to see that percentage creep higher as the season progresses.

- Both teams allow a high number of above-the-break 3s. The Rockets have conceded more shots from that area than any other team in the league while the Lakers are just five spots below them in that category. The primary difference: opponents have hit 44 percent of their shots from that area against Los Angeles and just 33.3 percent against Houston.

Lastly, a note on tonight’s battle of the boards where, once again, the Rockets figure to own the edge: Houston enters tonight’s contest ranked No. 1 overall in rebound rate while the Lakers are 21st, due in part to the fact that they largely ignore the offensive glass (LA is 27th in the NBA in offensive rebound rate; the Rockets, by the way, are third in that category). Los Angeles has, however, been solid on the defensive boards, ranking 7th in defensive rebound rate; Houston is 15th.

Quote of the day (shootaround edition): Patrick Beverley on how he managed to rapdily return from a partially torn muscle in his mid-section: "I'm Wolverine."