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News And Notes: Chasing Rabbits

November 30, 2012 4:17 pm EST

HOUSTON - At times, coaching a basketball team surely must feel something like a character in one of those old newsreel cartoons, frantically plugging holes in a leaky dam, all the while helplessly watching as another burst of water springs forth somewhere else. The job requires constant tinkering, fixing and the occasional outright overhaul, and no matter the time spent studying and addressing those issues, there’s always another leak ready to potentially sidetrack the entire operation right when one least expects it. 

Few know that feeling better these days than does Rockets acting head coach Kelvin Sampson, who has seen his club impressively right the ship on the offensive end over the course of the past couple weeks while simultaneously seeing a noticeable defensive drop-off as well. As a result, Houston’s league-wide standings in those areas have effectively flip-flopped from where they stood before the switch began. The Rockets’ previously top-10 defense now ranks 20th in defensive efficiency according to nba.com. And whereas Houston once found itself struggling to score in an efficient manner, the Rockets are now putting points on the board in bunches and, as a result, zooming up the NBA ranks to a tie for 11th in offensive efficiency.

The latter turnaround began during Houston’s heartbreaking defeat against the defending champs from Miami; a game in which the Rockets spent a significant portion of the contest slicing and dicing the Heat’s attempts at defense. In fact, in six of Houston’s past nine games, the Rockets have produced an offensive efficiency ranking that would easily place them among the league’s top-5 offenses. And of the three games during that stretch that saw Houston as offensively average or below average, two came during “schedule defeats” – a third-game-in-four-nights dud against Utah, and this Wednesday’s road weary effort in Oklahoma City – while the third took place against a Chicago team that remains a defensive force (the Bulls are No. 3 in defensive efficiency).

So what’s happened to the defense during that time? Part of it simply comes down to the caliber of competition faced. The Rockets faced five teams (New York, Miami, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and Utah) who rank in the top-10 in offensive efficiency and Portland (No. 13) isn’t too far off. Not helping matters is that Houston has slipped a bit of late on the defensive glass, and it doesn’t take a – ahem – rocket scientist to figure out that conceding additional scoring opportunities to teams already proficient in the art of putting points on the board is a recipe for negative fun. A closer look, meanwhile, also reveals that the Rockets’ familiar bugaboo of transition defense continues to be an Achilles heel. Houston ranks 24th in points per possession allowed in transition situations, according to Synergy Sports.

So with the offense seemingly back on track – and with a slew of terrific offensive teams (Utah, the Lakers, and San Antonio twice) coming up on the schedule – it comes as no surprise that the Rockets spent a great deal of time during Friday’s practice focusing on fixing their defense.

“I think it’s also a trait of a young team,” said Sampson, when asked about Houston's surging offense and lagging D. “Young teams have a hard time catching two rabbits. If you chase two rabbits there’s a good chance you won’t catch either one. If you chase one rabbit then you’re usually going to catch that one. With a young team, we’re chasing a lot of rabbits with these guys at both ends of the floor.

“Our offense is getting better because we’re moving the ball better. We’re having more pass-pass combinations where we’re attacking the paint with the dribble, drawing two guys, hitting the open guy, then that guy is making the extra pass – that’s why our shooting percentage is going up.

“Defensively, we just need to be more physical. The last couple of games we’ve been too soft. Defense is a mindset more than anything else. We’ve got to be physical, play tougher, work harder and we worked on all that today.”

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Something else that would go a long way toward helping the Rockets’ defense (and offense … and rebounding … ): A healthy Chandler Parsons. To that end, the Rockets received good news Thursday night when an MRI on his injured right shoulder revealed that he had a right shoulder strain as opposed to something more serious that would force him to miss a significant amount of time.

Parsons did sit out practice Friday and will be a game-time decision for Saturday’s grudge match against the Utah Jazz. He says the biggest issue at this point is not shooting, as some might suspect, but rather dealing with the more physical aspects of the game, such as working through screens, fighting for rebounding position and scrambling and diving for loose balls.

“I’m basically just really sore,” he said. “Just trying to do rehab to get back and hopefully I’ll be back tomorrow.

“I think it won’t get worse (by playing). I think it’s all about what I can tolerate, just being able to play through screens and rebound and play defense and do all the physical things. It still hurts and it’s still very sore, but I’ve still got 24 hours (before Saturday’s game against Utah). I really want to play, I feel like the team needs me and I want to be out there with them, so I’m doing whatever I can to get back as soon as possible.”

The good news: Even if Parsons is unable to play Saturday, the Rockets will welcome Carlos Delfino back to the lineup after he missed the last seven games with a groin injury. Delfino was a full participant in Friday’s practice, saying afterward that he’s good to go, with the only issue being one of getting back into game shape after his extended absence.

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Regular readers of ESPN.com’s superb NBA Insider John Hollinger hopefully took note of his excellent work this week revisiting the deal that brought James Harden to Houston. Within that piece, Hollinger raised the idea of potentially staggering the minutes of Jeremy Lin and James Harden, allowing each to get more time as the team’s primary playmaker since both players are currently better and more effective when the ball is in their hands.

The basic theory behind the concept is sound, though it does come with a pair of caveats: A.) With Delfino out (and now Parsons), the Rockets have been perilously thin at the wing position, which obviously limits the amount of lineup tinkering the Rockets are able to do. And B.) There’s also merit to the idea that, big picture, both Lin and Harden will benefit enormously by working their way through whatever growing pains exist. Both players need to get better playing off the ball; something that takes time, repetition, trial and error. Also, the biggest thing holding the pairing back thus far has been Lin’s struggles in spot-up situations, something he’s working tirelessly to improve upon and something that, at the very least, should eventually fall closer in line to his historical norms in that area. That is to say: Lin might not be a knockdown, deadeye shooter at this point in his career, but he’s much better than he’s shown thus far.

All that having been said, the staggered minute suggestion is something Sampson has toyed with and, assuming a fully healthy roster, something fans might see more of in the near future as well.

“In an ideal world, maybe we take (Harden) out in the first rotation so he can go back to being on the floor with our second unit,” said Sampson. “That’s something we’ve got to really look at is making sure we know who’s going to be on the floor. The other night it didn’t matter because we didn’t have our normal bench but if Chandler’s healthy and Carlos is healthy then I think … our bench can be an asset for us.

“Moving James out first and letting Jeremy play with Carlos and Chandler, then when we put Toney back in, Toney goes in with James – that’s something that we’re looking at. In running and coaching a team, you’re always looking at different ways of maximizing the strengths of who you have on the floor.”

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Lastly, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced Friday that the team has assigned forward Terrence Jones and re-assigned guard Scott Machado to Houston’s single-affiliation NBA D-League partner the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Jones is currently averaging 3.6 points and 2.0 rebounds in seven games with the Rockets this season. Machado, who was last assigned to Rio Grande Valley on November 13 and recalled on November 26, averaged 16.0 points, 8.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds in two starts with the Vipers. In Rio Grande Valley’s season opener against Bakersfield, Machado posted 20 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. In the second meeting with the Jam, he added 12 points, eight assists and a pair of steals.