Rockets 109, Magic 116 - Letdown

By Forrest Walker on January 13, 2019

The Houston Rockets can beat anyone or lose to anyone on any given night. Even short-handed, they've racked up impressive wins against the best teams in the league. Also, they've lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers and, tonight, the Orlando Magic. Alone, a game like this is little to worry about. As part of the larger season, the Rockets continue to have cause for concern, ever after winning 13 of the last 17 games. This was a bizarre, unlikely game, but it exposed some truths for the Rockets they'd rather not face.

Let's not bury the lede further; the big story of the game is the three point shooting. While the Magic put up a very respectable 37% on 9-24 shooting, the Rockets managed only 10 makes on 42 tries. That's under 24%. It also gets worse. Only five Rockets players even shot a three, due in part to how short-handed they. The numbers they shot were simply execrable. Danuel House and Austin Rivers both shot 4-7, an excellent line and a pair of stats you'd suspect would be part of a comfortable win. With the Rockets up double digits on multiple occasions and up 10 in the fourth, it looked that way for moments.

But there are still three more Rockets who shot threes. Unfortunately, I'm going to list them.

Gerald Green was 1-7, in a 14% outing that by itself would hinder an offense. This would be the worst shooting line of the night on the vast majority of evenings. Not, tonight, however.

That honor doesn't even belong to PJ Tucker, who missed all four of his three point attempts. That 0% may be the worst rate possible, but doesn't come close to the futility of the last line.

That line belongs to James Harden, who managed to miss 16 of his 17 tries (not counting the multiple threes he was fouled on). The fact that he managed to score 38 points on 32 shots despite shooting 5.9% from deep is frankly an achievement on its own. Allow me to reiterate, so that nobody skims this, thinking that's a typo.

James Harden shot five point nine per-cent on three point field goals. FIVE. POINT. NINE.

This is a legendary bad shooting night, one only a team as three point happy as the Rockets have any realistic chance of seeing more than once a decade. This is the biggest single reason that the Rockets lost, but it's woefully insufficient to describe the ignominy of what transpired in Orlando. If they had fallen behind early and simply couldn't shoot to keep up with a hot team, that would be one thing. This is, in fact, worse.

The Rockets led by 7 points with five minutes left in the game. Given that they lost by 7, that means that in a five minute period they allowed a 14 point swing. That's the sort of comeback that Rockets fans have become accustomed to seeing Harden et. al. perform, not the other way around, and that's, in one sense, exactly the problem. Houston has shown themselves to be great at playing from behind, particularly James Harden with all his heroics. They are, however, much worse at maintaining a lead, and both are due to how volatile their game is.

Last season, particularly at full strength, the Rockets seemed to be all but invincible. They played every game like the opposition was insulting them by showing up and they smothered teams on both ends. This season, they lose that energy easily, as they did tonight. They gave up a mere 18 points in the first quarter and proceeded to allow 30 in each following frame while losing every single one. When their shot goes away, the defense tends to follow suit. I've alleged for years that this is a function of their susceptibility to frustration, but each season is a new team. Last season, the relentless defense Houston employed would have allowed them to grind out a win even in these circumstances.

This season, the Rockets can give up a 14-point swing in five minutes to one of the worse teams in the league. Of course, the fact that they're injured and lean so heavily on Harden is part of the problem. Harden played 43 minutes on the front end of a back to back because they needed him to. The Rockets need him to be amazing to win games while they're missing two starters and most of their swagger. After enough of this, any human would wear down, and that's exactly what's happening to the human known as James Harden.

And even still, all of this would be momentary concerns if not for the reality that the Rockets have simply given up too many winnable losses this season. They didn't lose their 18th game at any point last season. They sit, currently, in the 6th seed. Even if they can get up to beat the good teams, if they have letdown games against the gimme teams they'll simply give up all the ground they gain on the five teams above them.

This is the sort of night that happens to pretty good teams. 24-18 is a pretty good record. James Harden, however, is a talent far too good to be on a pretty good team. With how mighty the Rockets looked last season, with how much talent is still on the roster, they have no business being a pretty good team. This is exactly the sort of game that separates the good from the great, and every other game we get another data point that suggests that, as far as they've come this season, they're still not even close to being great yet.

And if they think that's an acceptable outcome, they really have no shot at closing that gap.

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