There have been times in the Rockets' history when they got off to slow starts in games. This year, it is a slow start to the season. But when I predicted they would go 11-7 in their first month with Dwight Howard, it wasn't because I thought they would come flying out of the gates. It was because I expect them to out-talent the weaker teams and struggle against the contenders. So far, that's exactly what has happened.
After wins over the league's also-rans (including a near loss to Utah), they ran into a buzz saw in the LA Clippers Monday night. Despite a lackluster effort in LA LA Land and their first loss of the young season, there have been promising signs for the remainder of the season. But if there has been anything consistent about this team thus far, it is inconsistency.
Howard is dominating the glass in the first four games even though he played limited minutes Monday thanks to foul trouble. But his offensive game is still clunky and the rest of the Rockets have yet to figure out how to feed him in the post. James Harden is again a dominant offensive player, but he hasn't improved his defensive game thus far, something he said was a key focus for him in the offseason. In fact, he was worked over by JJ Redick -- yes, JJ Redick -- against the Clippers.
Jeremy Lin has had a nice start taking over the starting job for Patrick Beverley, who tore an abdominal muscle and will be out at least another week.
But confusion on the offensive end along with poor defensive rotations and occasional lapses in energy have caused the Rockets to often look awkward. The players spent a lot of time together in the offseason, but there is no substitute for real games against opponents trying to win. At two different points during the second half against the Clippers, Chandler Parsons and Howard were unable to connect on consecutive alley-oops, the first too low, the second at the right height but the wrong time. This is how it will likely be for at least the first month or two of the season as these players learn to work together. It would appear that, for the most part, there are pieces in place to make this a very good team...eventually. Still, they are winning, but as former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy famously used to say, "Never ignore in victory what you would not ignore in defeat." This would include everything mentioned above and more.
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The flashes they have shown, coming back against Utah and nearly running Dallas off the floor, would seem to bode well for the rest of the season. That includes some impressive play from forward Omri Casspi, who is shooting lights out from behind the arc and has demonstrated a pretty good first step, especially against opposing power forwards.
This is likely where the Rockets can begin to see progress first, in the smaller lineups. The Twin Towers look with Asik and Howard is intriguing and hasn't been nearly as ugly as it might have been -- their dominance on the glass, in particular, is worth noting. But the Rockets should thrive on small ball early with Lin and Beverly playing together, and Casspi seeing time at the four along with Francisco Garcia.
For now, they will need to rely on their abundance of talent against the bad teams. That of course does not include the Clippers, but there will be other chances against the league's elite as the season progresses. If the Rockets are still struggling against the better teams come Christmas, then it might be time for concern. At the moment, they should collect the wins where they can and keep improving. The most important games of the year aren't played in November.