Rockets 109, Bucks 116 - Not Close Enough

By Forrest Walker on January 9, 2019

The Milwaukee Bucks are at the top of the NBA standings for a reason. In tonight's loss to the Bucks, the Houston Rockets showed exactly why they aren't. It may have come down to the last few possessions, but when faced with the level of competition they'll need to beat to approach their expectations for the playoffs, Houston looked good but still not quite there yet. With as many losses now as they suffered all of last season, Houston still has a lot of gap to close.

The Rockets would need to go 42-0 to match last season's record at this point. It may be safe to say that this is off the table, and that this year's Rockets aren't last year's Rockets. That distance will only continue to be evident, even if they manage to close it somewhat. Even more concerning is the gap between reality and the goals they expected to achieve this season. While Houston has looked much closer to that in recent weeks, it won't count if they get close and then miss, much as it didn't count tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks.

This is a Bucks team that has failed enough. They've grown from truly humble beginnings to now be not only a playoff lock but the best team in the NBA by any metric. It may be a high bar to expect a win against the best team in the league while missing Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, but that's simply the height of the bar the Rockets themselves set last year. This is only compounded by the reality that Houston was in position to take the game multiple times and in multiple ways, but managed to cough up a reasonable loss instead of a meaningful win.

The Rockets are good. They might even have climbed up to "great." They still have farther to climb.

Tonight, James Harden was still the hero of the evening. He scored 42 points on 13-30 shooting to go with 11 rebounds and 6 assists. The problem here was that he only had 6 assists as well as 9 turnovers. Despite being another 40-point night, this result was actually quite good for Milwaukee as they were able to reduce the offense to almost entirely Harden, and mostly from the three point arc. Their interior defense hassled his drives and made passes difficult, tiring him out and helping create those 9 turnovers.

Alarmingly, that relatively slim assist number was in large part due to the comparatively abysmal play of Clint Capela. In his huge night against the Denver Nuggets, Capela showed how valuable he can be in running Houston's offense and defense. Tonight, however, he was neither the punishing rim roller he needs to be on offense nor the stopper he needs to be on defense. Given that everything he does is right at the rim, he has no business going 4-16 on the night. He also was a sieve defensively, though this is due to Brook Lopez's powers of floor spacing as it is anything he did. Overall, Brook Lopez outplayed him on both ends of the floor, and that's simply not an acceptable outcome if the Rockets want to be playing basketball in June.

Ultimately, that's what it comes down to. Houston had a ten point lead in the first half and a seven point lead in the third quarter, and neither of those were enough. Apart from the few minutes in which they gained back that lead, the third quarter and early fourth were absolutely disastrous for Houston. The fact that they got within 3 late due to heroics from Harden make the loss sting even more. They looked fully capable to taking home an impressive win, but instead pick up the expected loss. Ironically, if they had simply trailed by 7-12 the entire game, it would have been much less frustrating for a team so close but yet so far away.

The Rockets have looked great lately, but like this game, the worry is that it's simply another rally that won't get them across the finish line. If they weren't expected to make it to the conference finals if not farther, these setbacks would be easier to swallow. But instead of being the juggernaut they were a year ago, they're having to fight uphill against against the same teams they waylaid before. They still have plenty of season to get there. But, if anything, this game highlights just how hard it can be to close that gap.

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