Ups and Downs Continue for Harden-less Rockets

Chris Paul was tremendous on Monday night in a win over the Bulls.
Chris Paul was tremendous on Monday night in a win over the Bulls. Photo by Jeff Balke
The adage "live by the three, die by the three" has been bandied about in NBA circles since the three point shot became a  part of the game. But, the Rockets, a team that shoots the long-range shot in greater numbers than any team in league history, may be better defined by "live by the D, die by the D" — more accurately, the lack thereof.

Even before James Harden went down with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for a few more weeks, the team was backsliding on defense, a trait that allowed them to get out to the best start in the NBA this season. It was the lack of defensive intensity that saw them, after staying step-for-step with both the Warriors and Pistons last week, fall meekly in the second half in both games.

Sure, they didn't shoot the ball well, particularly from distance —forward Ryan Anderson has had a particularly brutal stretch recently and continues to shoot far better on the road than inside Toyota Center—but this has been a team earlier in the season that could withstand rough shooting nights by grinding it out at the other end of the floor.

Against the Bulls on Monday night, they managed to get both on track. The Rockets hit 20 three pointers, having hit at least 10 in 35 consecutive games (an NBA record), and managed to hold off a feisty Bulls squad that came back from 21 points down in the first quarter. Like so often in the NBA, 20-point leads are not safe outside the fourth quarter (and sometimes in them), but the Rockets found the defensive fortitude (and the shots) to hold on for a 116-107 win going away late in the final frame.

The combination of an inconsistent lineup thanks to injuries (both Harden and Mbah a Moute remain out for at least a couple more weeks), a tougher schedule than they faced early in the season and some rough recent shooting nights from Anderson and others has turned the Rockets into a rather mediocre squad since mid December. But, with the cushion they built for themselves early on, they still have one of the four best records in the NBA (second in the West).

And it isn't as if the Rockets have a dearth of talent even with a sidelined Harden. Chris Paul was fantastic on Monday scoring 24 with 9 assists and 8 rebounds. Eric Gordon, who may be the team's most consistent player this entire season, dropped 24 points with 9 assists and 6 rebounds.

But perhaps the brightest spot continues to be Gerald Green. A native Houstonian who has taken to showing up to games in vintage Oilers and Rockets jerseys, the versatile wing man has breathed some fresh life into the lineup. He is averaging just under 17 points per game (he had 22 in Chicago) and shooting a smoking 51 percent from distance. Green has been without a team since being waived by the Milwaukee Bucks in the preseason. Clearly, coming home agrees with him and the Rockets have needed his shooting.

Now, they come home to face Portland, a team that has struggled a bit of late, but is still dangerous with its dynamic backcourt. On Friday, the Rockets travel to Phoenix to play the hapless Suns before Paul's homecoming against the Clippers on Monday. These next three games are critical against weaker opponents and the Rockets will need more threes and D if they are going to turn around what has been a pretty tough winter so far.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke