Beat San Antonio. Lose to Atlanta. These are the kinds of wild mood swings we have come to expect from our Houston Rockets this season. But Thursday night was something entirely different. In fact, it's difficult to describe just how dramatic the difference between the first and second halves of the loss to Oklahoma City was, so here are some numbers.
The Rockets scored 73 points in the first half, a season high, and followed it with 19 in the second half, a season low that included the two lowest scoring quarters of the year, 10 points in the third and only 9 in the fourth. They hit 12 three pointers in the first half and ZERO in the second. It sounds bad for sure, but in fact it was historically bad. They became the only team in NBA history to score more than 70 points in the first half and fewer than 20 points in the second half. They set a negative point differential record with -54 points difference between the first and second halves.
It would be remarkable if it weren't so depressing. But this is the kind of wild inconsistency that is born out of the 7th youngest roster in the NBA -- none of the six younger teams has a winning record -- an offensive philosophy built around shooting more threes than any team in the league and a lack of defense that is sometimes shocking for a professional basketball team.
Yet, the Rockets continue to be one of the top four or five teams in the brutal Western Conference thanks to a talent base that allows them to win on nights when they aren't that good -- their three-point win in New Orleans Wednesday night when they led the game for a grand total of 1:14 would seem to be a good example. Still, if they are going make a deep playoff run, they will need to curb their wild inconsistencies.
Last year when the Rockets were piling up three pointers, it was to be expected. Their only low post presence was Omer Asik and their best players were on the perimeter. GM Daryl Morey has said that, statistically, the way to win is via points in the paint or three pointers and the Rockets have continued to do both, but the offense has been complicated by the presence of a legitimate center in Dwight Howard, making it difficult for the Rockets to decide when they are a run-and-gun team and when to slow it down and work it into the post.
At times, it appears they get caught somewhere between the two styles, not knowing exactly what to do. The NBA increasingly has gone from set offenses with coaches calling plays to a handful of offensive sets that are run in a free-flowing manner dictated by the opposing defense. The Rockets are the latter, but their lack of experience and short time playing together -- seeing them against a veteran OKC team that has been to the playoffs and the Finals was eye opening -- often find them looking herky-jerky and out of sync. Then there's the defense, or lack thereof. The Rockets play, at times, shocking little defense. They are certainly improved over last season when anytime Asik left the floor, it looked more like a pick-up game than an NBA contest. But, they have so far to go. James Harden, for all his brilliance offensively, still frustratingly lets defenders blow by him and swipes at the ball as they pass. As terrific as Howard and front court mate Terrence Jones have been blocking shots, there are still games where they can't secure a critical rebound and struggle with on-the-ball defense.
Chandler Parsons has been the lone constant on the defensive end of the floor, which is why when he has missed games with a variety of injuries, the Rockets clearly struggle.
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So much of these issues stem from inexperience. It is by no means an excuse, but it is impossible to ignore their average age of just over 25 and barely three years of playing experience, not to mention that Howard was only acquired in the offseason. Teams like OKC have played together with nearly the same lineups for three or four years.
More than that, good teams rely on things they can replicate. You can always play defense. You can always rebound. You can always run the ball and hustle. You can't always hit long distance shots. To use a baseball metaphor, the Rockets often strike out swinging for home runs when singles would win a lot of games. They remind me of young golfers constantly shooting for eagles and trying to hit greens when pars and fairways would net them plenty of success.
Which is why Thursday night, while a hideous embarrassment of a performance in the second half, doesn't seem all that surprising for a team like the Rockets. Combine a jump shooting team with one that doesn't play defense and it's no surprise they wind up with such incredible swings from game to game or, in the case of Thursday, half to half.
The Rockets will make the playoffs this year. They might even advance to the second round. But, until they learn that they can't win consistently with three pointers and lackluster defense, they will not be a championship contender, and they will continue to frustrate fans like they did on Thursday.