SAN FRANCISCO, CA - On the surface, there exist some eerie similarities between the Rockets’ 117-111 loss to Sacramento Sunday night and the defeat at the hands of the Hornets that sent Houston into a seven-game tailspin in the middle of the club’s brutal January schedule.
The lead up to both games saw the Rockets enter on a rather significant roll with their offense having hit high gear, and both contests featured similarly struggling opponents who rallied back from fourth quarter deficits behind some scorching fourth quarter shooting and Houston’s uncharacteristic inability to take care of the defensive glass.
Absent Doc Brown’s tricked-out DeLorean or a hot tub time machine, there’s obviously nothing the Rockets can do about either disappointing result at this point. What they can do, however, is make sure the aftermath is not nearly so damaging this time around. And for what it’s worth, Jeremy Lin believes his club is now far better equipped to avoid another prolonged slump.
“That’s not to guarantee a win tomorrow or the day after,” he said Monday after practice. “But I know for a fact, us as a team, we’re a lot more mature and that we have solidified an identity right now. We know what we have to get back to and we spent all day drilling it. That first New Orleans game, we had an idea but we were just kind of guessing. We tried a lot of different things during that seven-game slump to try to change and alter things before we finally got back to what was working for us. So we now have what we feel is a blueprint for what we want to do.”
That blueprint had been downright devastating to opponents prior to the speed bump Houston encountered Sunday night in Sacramento. The Rockets came into their matchup with the Kings averaging more than 118 points per game over their previous seven contests, all accomplished while shooting better than 51 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point territory. In fact, Houston was so ridiculously hot during that stretch that the club’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) over those seven games was an otherworldly 121.6. For perspective, Oklahoma City currently leads the NBA with an offensive rating of 110.3. Little wonder, then, that Houston’s point differential over that span was an eye-popping +14.9.
So yes, you could say the Rockets began this three-game west coast swing on a bit of a roll. And now, in a season that’s already been filled with plenty of growth spurts and growing pains, the club’s players and coaches will get yet another chance to see how far they’ve come and just how much they’ve learned by watching how the team responds to this latest bit of adversity.
That Lin is confident in his club’s ability to respond in a positive fashion is no surprise since he’s already persevered through an abundance of ups and downs himself over the course of his young NBA career, not to mention the roller coaster ride this season has been for him at times as well. The 24-year-old really struggled over the course of the season’s first six weeks, culminating in a rough performance against the Raptors that led him to describe his play up to that point in the season as “terrible.”
Ever since, however, his production has steadily improved, as has his confidence. Lin has been especially strong of late, averaging 15.4 points, 6.6 assists and almost two steals per game over his last nine contests, all while shooting nearly 52 percent from both the field and beyond the arc. And it was with that improvement – both his own and his team’s – in mind that Rockets.com sat down with Jeremy Sunday morning to discuss the source of their respective renaissance. What follows is the transcript of that conversation.
JCF: You guys have put up so many ridiculous numbers on offense of late, but the one that perhaps stands out the most to me is how, over the past seven games, you guys have been averaging nearly 27 assists per game versus just 13 turnovers per game. That obviously represents a stark departure from the January slump when it was just turnoverpalooza every night. I know the schedule was brutal back then – was it really just as simple as getting some rest and sorely needed practice time?
JL: I think that’s a part of it and then I think the other part is you drop a couple and then you panic, you hesitate and you second guess. Then everything that was once natural and free flowing now isn’t. Even the game that broke the slump (Charlotte), was not a good game. It felt like a loss. But then we were able to rest and get back to our principles, we were able to watch some film, see what we were supposed to play like and get back to doing what we were supposed to do.
I think the biggest thing is Chandler Parsons and James Harden have really upped their assist totals and they’ve become really good playmakers. I think our team is focused now where, every possession we have, we want to make the right play and get the right shot. When you simplify it, it becomes fun to play and fun to watch.
JCF: I think you can see that on the court. The decision-making has become so much better; whereas during that losing streak the pace dropped, the spacing crumbled and, as a result, too often guys seemed to force things. Now obviously the red-hot shooting helps – everything looks better when you’re knocking down 43 percent of your threes – but it’s the sheer quantity of good looks you guys are getting that really stands out.
JL: Yeah, it’s very easy, very natural and I think the biggest thing is we’re moving the ball from side to side, from backcourt to frontcourt really, really fast. We feel like if we move the ball from side to side and we play at the pace with which he can play then the defense is going to eventually give us something good. And like you said, it doesn’t hurt that we’ve been knocking down our shots. But I think part of it also is the quality of the shot.
JCF: You’ve really been stroking it, too. I thought there was a telling moment during that Portland game, something I don’t think I’ve seen all season, where you brought the ball up early in the shot clock, saw that your man was sagging off you and, without any hesitation whatsoever, pulled up and drained a three …
JL: You mean long two …
JCF: Oh, that’s right! I forgot they went back, reviewed it and saw your foot was on the line. But the overall point still holds: that shot still speaks to what seems to be a significant increase in your confidence in your shot these days.
JL: Definitely. It feels good right now. I feel like I’m shooting the ball a lot better. I’m definitely trying to look for some shots and I feel like, if it’s a good shot, then you’ve just got to shoot it and forget the percentage or all the other stuff. If it’s a good shot for that player, you’ve got to take it.
JCF: I keep thinking back to that Toronto game in mid-December. You’d had a rough game, the team had just lost, and you walked out of that locker room looking like the weight of the world was on your shoulders before proceeding to publicly beat yourself up for your play up to that point. Can you compare and contrast how far both you and this team have come since that point? I don’t want to put words in your mouth but it sure seemed like you were feeling as low as you’d been all year that day.
JL: No, you’re right. I think that, for me, was a turning point in the season. In between the Toronto and New York game, the way we played in the New York game, I think that started our first run. That’s what we should try to do every night.
Then we went through another slump, that seven-game slide. It basically shows a young team, right? We’re down, we’re up, we’re down again, then we’re up. If you look at the San Antonios and the Oklahomas – they stay steady and that’s what we’re trying to get to, but it’s going to take some time.
JCF: Are you surprised at all at the success you’ve had up to this point? I know the goal at the start of the season was to make the playoffs and I know there was belief in this locker room that you could reach that goal. But you guys have been blowing a lot of teams out. You’re not one of those clubs that has gotten to this point by boasting an unsustainable record of prevailing in a bunch of tight games. You’ve crushed a lot of quality clubs; something that’s typically indicative of a really good team. Add to that an offense that’s creeping into top-5 territory – that’s not how it’s supposed to work in this league for a team with so many new faces, so many young players and so little time to gel as a group in training camp.
JL: I think we’ve definitely surprised ourselves a little bit. Like you said, it’s maybe not so much the fact that we win games but how we’ve won some of these games. The thing that we keep saying to ourselves and the thing that Coach McHale keeps telling us is, ‘You guys can be really, really good. You have no idea how good you can become.’ But the problems that we get into – holding the ball, poor decisions, lack of focus on defense – if we can shore those things up, who knows how good we can be? That’s what Coach is always telling us: ‘I don’t care how young we are and I don’t care that everybody says you’re the youngest team in the league – that doesn’t matter to me. Throw that out the window. Be as good as you can become. I think that’s what we’re really working toward right now.
There should be no shortage of drama and intrigue leading up to Tuesday night’s showdown with the Golden State Warriors – not after all the postgame back-and-forth that ensued following the Rockets’ 140-109 win that saw Houston tie an NBA record with 23 three-pointers made in the contest.
But for all the talk and entertaining postgame tweets, don’t expect much in the way of bad blood to manifest itself on the court, primarily because there’s probably not a whole lot that truly exists (at least not yet anyway). Case in point: Chandler Parsons is actually friends with Warriors’ forward David Lee (they’re both University of Florida products and share the same agent) and Golden State head coach Mark Jackson, and each found the humor in Parsons’ playful “hand down, man down” jabs that came at the Warriors’ expense a week ago.
“I’m really cool with Mark Jackson,” Parsons explained. “We’ve always been very funny and joking around with each other. I said that to him (after a made three): ‘Hand down, man down,’ and he started dying laughing. So really I tweeted that just being funny; I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or anything.
“I don’t expect anything ridiculous (Tuesday night). I’m sure their crowd will be into it and loud. I’ve gotten some tweets from Warrior fans. But really it’s just another game for us. I don’t know how they’re approaching it, if they’re using last game as motivation or what they’re doing, but it’s another game for us that we want to go out there and win. We’re not worried about what happened last time.”
James Harden and Toney Douglas did not participate in Monday’s practice. Harden was slowed by a sore knee he sustained late in Sunday’s matchup with Sacramento, while Douglas continues to recover from a hip pointer injury suffered against Portland last Friday night. Both are being listed as day-to-day.