Rockets' offense falls flat, allows Lakers to rally for 99-95 OT win
LOS ANGELES, CA - From day one of training camp, Houston’s coaching staff has preached from the Bible of pace, space, ball and body movement. They have implored their players to push the ball up the floor after every make, miss or turnover, and pleaded with their charges to rapidly swing the ball from side to side in an effort to pry opposing defenses apart until their vulnerabilities are laid bare for all to see.
At their best, the young Rockets have lived large upon the tenets of that doctrine, piling up points in bunches while feasting on the spoils of early offense and transition buckets. At their worst, however, they have strayed too far from the principles that helped transform them into a playoff-bound club that boasts one of the most eye-pleasing styles in the NBA. Instead of free-flowing, up-tempo pace-and-space, Houston’s offense occasionally bogs down in a quagmire of stagnant, sticky one-on-one play. The ball gets walked up the court. The game slows to a crawl. And more often than not, the end result is pain.
That toxic formula undid the Rockets once again Wednesday night on the final day of the regular season. The timing could hardly have been worse. With an 11-point second half lead and the injury-ravaged Lakers seemingly on the ropes, the Rockets succumbed to their worst habits once more. While Houston crept the ball up the court, Los Angeles crept ever closer on the scoreboard until the Lakers eventually climbed in front. Chandler Parsons did his best to come to the rescue, draining one of the more miraculous buzzer-beaters in recent Rockets’ history. It provided only a brief reprieve, however. The extra frame brought with it more of the same, offering one final, bitter and searing reminder of the kind of team Houston must be – and the kind of team it mustn’t – if it hopes to have any success moving forward.
“We didn’t get much movement and we were left with a lot of isolation plays at the end of the clock,” lamented Jeremy Lin. “That’s a tough way to produce points consistently.”
Added Parsons: “That’s not our game and that’s not what we’re good at. We have to push the ball up and we have to get stops so we can get out in transition but we can’t slow the ball down – that’s not the kind of team we are. We’re much better in the open court and when we run and gun so it’s just something we’ve got to clean up going into the playoffs.”
Houston will have to do so in Oklahoma City, which is where their first round opponent awaits after Wednesday’s loss dropped them to the Western Conference’s eight seed. The offensive fixes should by now be obvious enough and tempo ought not to be an issue against a Thunder squad that ranks top-10 in pace itself. But the Rockets must also make sure to solidify another one of their strengths that slipped badly during the club’s back-to-back losses to finish the season. Houston has been an elite defensive rebounding team all year, but second chance points allowed absolutely burned them against the Suns and it came back to haunt them once more Wednesday night.
To be sure, getting healthy and whole is going to be a tough task against Oklahoma City, the defending Western Conference champs and a strong favorite to return to the Finals this year. But if the Rockets need proof that such a thing is possible, they need only reacquaint themselves with the film from their February 20 contest with the Thunder that stands as one of Houston’s signature wins of the season. On that night passes were zipping from strong-side to weak with precision and purpose. The ball found the open man. James Harden and Jeremy Lin worked in concert, producing some of the sweetest music Toyota Center has ever heard.
That’s what the Rockets will need. That is who they will have to be. It didn’t happen Wednesday night and Houston paid the price, subjecting themselves to one more tough lesson on the hoops learning curve that can be brutally steep at times for such a young team.
“It was my fault. I couldn’t make a shot,” said Harden after needing 25 shots to reach 30 points and turning the ball over six times. “I had way too many turnovers tonight. Tomorrow and Thursday and Friday I’ll start focusing on Oklahoma City but tonight I just can’t get over what happened.”
Houston’s All-Star guard also knows all too well that he’ll be wearing a giant bulls-eye on his chest when facing his former team.
“It comes with the package. I have to do a good job of handling it well, and making sure I’m doing the right things. Obviously I’m new to this, so I might make some mistakes, but I just have to continue to work at it.”
The entire team does. This latest episode of growing pains proved that much. But while they’re working, the Rockets would also be wise to remember who they are and what they must do to win. That blueprint that got them this far. And the more they adhere to that formula, the better off they'll be.
“We didn’t have any ball movement at all, too sticky. We didn’t get the ball going. We couldn’t keep them off the boards. We had plenty of stops, we had chances to run but we just walked it up. Otherwise we made some bad decisions. Had a few turnovers. But mostly, if we don’t play with pace, their two big guys just control the game after a while. Gasol had a triple double and we had a hard time keeping him off the boards. And if we are not attacking and playing before they are back there, we went through some stretches where we struggled offensively. The thing is that we were stopping them, they were just getting second and third shots. They had 24 second chance points that killed us.”
“The ball gets sticky. We work on it and we just have to keep on doing it. Like I say, we go through periods where we do it and periods where we don’t do it. We just have to get into those things. We have talked about moving the ball. Trying to get into some more offense where the ball goes from side to side. Attack. Make the extra pass. But again like I said, it has been that off and on all year long. And part of it is that they play those two bigs so you kind of have to stay big, so your spacing gets a little more jammed up then a lot of the times where we will play smaller and spread the court a little bit more.”
(why were guys walking the ball up) “We have talked about pushing it all the time, we just have to keep doing it. We just have to play our ball for 48 minutes.”
(on playing OKC): They’re a good team. We’re going to have to play well. That’s a tough team. They went to the Finals last year and they’re pretty battle-tested so we’re going to have our hands full.
(what happened to the offense in that second half?) “We didn’t get much movement and we were left with a lot of isolation plays at the end of the clock. That’s a tough way to produce points consistently. One through five we didn’t do a good job. I didn’t do a good job pushing it, and we didn’t do a good job of spacing. We really didn’t get anything that we really wanted to down the stretch.”
(on if the team can use this as a lesson): “Absolutely, even us having a 10-point lead and seeing it dwindle, and losing in overtime. It’s just the whole process of understanding what we need to do differently, how to change that, and just growing up from failure.”
(on OT): The overtime started off slow. Both teams weren’t able to get much going and they just kind of out-executed us down the stretch. They got an easy dunk and an easy jumper in the lane and we weren’t able to capitalize on some of the opportunities that we had.
“It was my fault; I couldn’t make a shot. All of my shots felt good, it’s just they were short on the front of the rim. A little bit more touch and this is a different ball game, but I’ll take the blame for that one.”
(on playing OKC): To be honest, I’m still focused on this game we just lost and the things I could have done better at. I had way too many turnovers tonight. Tomorrow and Thursday and Friday I’ll start focusing on Oklahoma City but tonight I just can’t get over what happened.
On having the attention on him in the playoffs: “It comes with the package. I have to do a good job of handling it well, and making sure I’m doing the right things. Obviously I’m new to this, so I might make some mistakes, but I just have to continue to work at it.”
On what he means by being new to it: “New as a leader, as a head hauncho guy, having all of the attention on you. Like I said it’s new for me, but I’m just going to keep working and do my best to do a good job at it.”
(on why the team occasionally gets bogged down in an iso-heavy offense): We get stagnant. We don’t push the ball. There are stretches where we look good and even when teams score on us we get the ball out and score on them quick. There’s times where we don’t get the ball out quick and we have to play good defensive half-court teams and it was one of those scenarios where we couldn’t get easy points down the stretch when we needed them.
on the three he hit at the end of regulation: “It was just kind of a broken play, and obviously we had to get a three. They were switching out on everything so it’s difficult to get a shot off on the first action, so we moved the ball and we tried multiple attempts at the shot. I didn’t even know Jeremy [Lin] was on the floor when I threw him the ball, but he made a great pass and I just knocked down the shot.”
on the playoff series against the Thunder: “It’s 0-0, so I’m perfectly happy with going in there and confident in playing against the Thunder. I think we’re better than the eight seed and it was obviously a really tight race so there wasn’t much distance between six and eight. I think we’ll be ready to go, and we’ve beaten them before this year, so that’s a positive sign.”
(on why the team occasionally gets bogged down in an iso-heavy offense): I’m not really sure. That’s not our game and that’s not what we’re good at. We have to push the ball up and we have to get stops so we can get out in transition but we can’t slow the ball down – that’s not the kind of team we are. We’re much better in the open court and when we run and gun so it’s just something we’ve got to clean up going into the playoffs.
LAKERS HEAD COACH MIKE D’ANTONI
“Obviously I’m really proud the way for just a month they [Lakers] had to just play in elimination-like games every night, and I think Steve Nash said it best, or Dwight [Howard] I forget which one said but it after they threw in the 3 to tie the game and it went into overtime, he said, ‘It’s been hard all year, this stuff’s happened all year, so why was this any different, and it’s not going to be easy and let’s go out and win it,’ and they did. The great thing about it was everybody contributed somebody did something that we got the win, because you can’t shoot 36 percent and make it easy, it’s going to be tough. So we didn’t shoot the ball well, but other than that I thought we had good shots and I thought the guys obviously played hard and we played well defensively again.”
On turning the season around: “Well we’ve been hurt. We were struggling early everybody and trying to figure it out and you know I’m getting [upset] because I feel like the energy level’s not there. They were hurting. You know Dwight [Howard] was hurting, Pau [Gasol] was hurting and then they started getting better, feeling better and the team starting feeling better about themselves also and our energy level went up and it’s just a good thing it’s coming…”
on clinching the 7th seed: “From where we 20 or 30 games ago 7 [seed] is pretty good, from where we were. We should’ve been in that spot in the first place, it’s our fault, but at the same time there’s no difference between 8, 7, 6 and 5, you don’t have home-court and it’s just the way it is and we’ll have to go into San Antonio and win one. San Antonio’s a great team and it’s obviously not going to be easy, but like they [Lakers] said it hasn’t been easy all year, so why would it be now.”
“It took a total team effort and defensively I think we’re playing really well right now, against one of the best offensive teams in the league. Offensively, we’re sharing the ball and guys are doing a great job. It was a total team effort, everybody is doing great.”
“Like I said, a little bit from everybody. A couple free throws here and there. That was a big drive by Jodie [Meeks] showing his athleticism, Dwight [Howard] was huge on defensive plays down the stretch. I don’t even know what to say, I’m just proud to be a Laker.”
on the playoff push and facing the Spurs in the first round: “It hasn’t been easy; it’s been a crazy year. We’re playing together like a family. We’re going to really have to focus on what we need to do, learn from the things we made mistakes last time we played San Antonio and just go from there.
“It [the game] pretty much sums up the whole season. We went through a whole lot of adversity but the character this team showed. We stayed positive, we played together as a team offensively, we got it going a little bit in the second half but the one thing we really needed to count on was being consistent defensively.”
on Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol: “Right now, they are the two guys that really have to run the ship and we have to do everything possible to make things easy for them and for them to not to have to work as much on both ends of the floor. So collectively, offensively, we have to get some movement. You have to have energy from guys coming off the bench and defensively, we can’t really on Dwight [Howard] and Pau [Gasol] to really control everything so, collectively we have to do it and you’ve seen that the last couple of games.”
on how the Lakers came back and won the game: “We were just playing very disciplined defense. We’ve been very active, we’re communicating and covering for each other, we’re just so locked in defensively that we’ve given ourselves a chance in every game even if offensively we’re not being very effective or sharp at times.”
on key of defense and slowing down the Rockets: “We just stepped up to the challenge of understanding who they are and what they do and just tried to stop them the best we could. I think we scrambled really well, we hustled, we covered for each other and that’s what we’ve been doing as of late and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
on San Antonio match-up Sunday:
“We will continue with the spirit that we’ve been playing with. Try to continue and carry the momentum into the playoffs. Understand that it is going to be very difficult. San Antonio is a great team, they’re very experienced, they execute really well, they’re disciplined, extremely well coached and we are going to play on their home court. So we still believe in ourselves. We have to hustle and play with the intensity and focus that we’ve been playing with and we are going to give ourselves a chance. We’re going to stay in games and who knows what’s going to happen.”
on tonight’s dunk: “They were trying to run me off the line on that so I was trying to mix it up a little bit. My shot was a little off tonight but I just kept shooting when I was open. I saw a lane and I took it.”
on how roles have changed between Steve Blake and him without Kobe: “It’s just when somebody is out we have to step up. Can’t make any excuses. There’s a lot more opportunity for me, Steve and the rest of the guys.”
on defense in the second half: “They have some good players that can square the ball. We tried as best as we could to make it hard for them. They made some tough shots especially at the end but we just took to our principles and we’re lucky they missed.”
“I just think tonight was a hard fought game by both teams. We gave it our all out there. In the first half, they hit a lot of tough shots and we were missing a lot of shots tonight. One thing that was good about it, we never stopped playing. We didn’t allow the misses and the shots that we normally make to affect us as a team. We kept playing great defense, we kept trusting each other, and we got a good win.”
on being in the playoffs: “Everybody counted us out but one thing that I told the guys tonight was that we’ve been through so much as a team this year, from the injuries to the rumors and everything that has happened. It could have made us separate from each other but we stayed strong, stayed together and we won for each other tonight. So we’re happy that we’re in the playoffs but we’re not done yet.”