Cram Session

Rockets working feverishly to improve in time for Game 2 vs. OKC
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - From the moment they set foot on the plane heading back to Houston late Sunday night, Houston’s players and coaches have been devouring and digesting the film from a rather unpleasant evening in Oklahoma City. With Game 2 not slated to take place until Wednesday night, the Rockets have a significant amount of time to learn from their mistakes and to apply those lessons in an attempt to make amends the next time they take the floor.  And those two days off in between games figure to be crucial for Houston as the club will undoubtedly need to make the most of every waking hour given the complexity of some of the matchup problems the Thunder present.

On the offensive end of the floor, that means making massive improvement in both spacing and decision-making. The Rockets shot just 36 percent from the field and a meager 22 percent from beyond the arc in Game 1 – anemic rates directly related to the execution issues that plagued the team for much of the evening. To be sure, the Thunder had something to do with that, too; their third-ranked defense made life miserable for Houston, especially with its ability to switch just about everything on pick-and-rolls – a strategy the Rockets proved unable to counter with any sort of effectiveness Sunday night.

“When they would switch a big guy on us we’d have mismatches but there’d be nowhere to go because our spacing was poor,” Chandler Parsons said following Monday’s practice. “We need everyone knowing where they’ve got to be and to make the little adjustments that we need to make. We’ve pretty much watched the entire game and everybody owned up to their mistakes and what they can do better.”

Added Jeremy Lin: “It’s the same stuff as always: just being aggressive, getting to the corners, running, playing good defense, gang rebounding, sharing the ball, hitting the open man – things that are easy to say from the outside but kind of hard to do when you play a team that’s more athletic or a team that switches pick-and-rolls or a team that has length like they have.”

It is the defensive end, however, that harbors the most truly mind-bending puzzles for Houston. And believe it or not, the toughest riddle to unravel does not include Kevin Durant. Oh, he’s still a massive problem, but so long as Chandler Parsons is able to avoid foul trouble, the Rockets’ game plan for Durant is fairly straightforward, not to mention surprisingly effective. OKC’s superstar has averaged 22 points per game on 41.3 percent shooting during the three games this season in which he has faced Houston with Parsons in the lineup. And though Durant finished Game 1 with 24 points on 7-15 shooting, he was just 1-6 from the field when Parsons was the man defending him.

More vexing for Houston, however, has been what to do with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Both were at their destructive best Sunday night, building upon the damage they have inflicted just about every time they have faced the Rockets this season. Westbrook’s per game averages in four matchups with Houston this year: 22.3 points, 8.8 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 44.4 percent shooting from the field. Ibaka’s numbers are similarly eye-popping: 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 64.3 percent shooting.

There is no obvious answer for Ibaka. Greg Smith can and likely will play better than he did Sunday night when he was -34 during 17 minutes of action, but his inability to stretch the floor on offense allows OKC’s jumping jack to hang around the rim and put on a shot blocking exhibition. Houston can choose to go small by putting Carlos Delfino in the game to stretch the floor and that strategy paid dividends against the Thunder during Houston’s comeback win over OKC in February, but asking him to keep Ibaka off the glass at the other end of the floor could prove troublesome as well. Additionally, Oklahoma City can counter with a deadly small-ball lineup of its own that features Ibaka at the five and Durant sliding over to the power forward position. The pick-your-poison possibilities seemingly never end with this team. Most likely, then, Houston head coach Kevin McHale is just going to have to mix and match on a night-by-night basis in an attempt to find something that works from game to game. Similarly, he’ll need Smith, Delfino, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas to raise the level of their play accordingly.

And as for the human thunderbolt that is Westbrook, McHale says that while his point guards need to do a better job at the point of attack, the entire team is going to have to help out in order to build a wall between him and the basket.

“You can’t open the door on him,” said McHale. “You have to fight him a little more. He had eight or nine drives from half-court that ended up in assists or baskets. We’ve got to take charges. We have to get back, we have to load the paint and on those eight or nine drives there have to be two or three charges and that will slow down the number of times he comes in there. But it’s a team thing and that guy is just electrically fast.

“I thought we gave in a couple of times and just turned sideways and if he sees you turn sideways he’s just playing downhill on you fast.”

For the next 48 hours, then, the Rockets will be cramming for their next exam. They have no shortage of source material to pore through and digest. Wednesday’s test doesn’t figure to be any easier than what they just experienced. But having now gone through the process, the Rockets know what awaits them and what it will take to earn a passing score.

“At the end of the day, if you lose by one point or lose by 30, it’s still just one loss that doesn’t carry over to the next game,” Parsons said. “I think it was not a good thing but it’s not the end of the world either. It’s one game of a seven-game series so we’ll be ready to go Wednesday night.”