Rockets Step Up

Jeremy Lin challenges the Rockets to step up defensively: James Harden is under the microscope

Jeremy Lin challenges Rockets to step up: James Harden under pressure

Kevin Durant James Harden
For all his individual brilliance, James Harden finds himself under a defensive microscope with the Houston Rockets. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Jeremy Lin Mavericks
Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons both know that the Rockets defense must improve if the team is going to challenge for an NBA title. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Sport
Dwight Howard post up
Dwight Howard is a great defensive anchor, but he cannot do it alone. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Kevin Durant James Harden
Jeremy Lin Mavericks
Dwight Howard post up

Jeremy Lin spoke in a tone befitting the occasion, offering the conscientious perspective and unvarnished reflection many carry through the final hours of one year into the dawn of another.

The Houston Rockets spent their New Year's Eve blowing another game to an inferior opponent, showcasing a disrespectful lack of competitiveness in the first half against the Sacramento Kings before attempting another last-ditch pursuit of victory only to stumble deservedly down the stretch. Their 110-106 loss was their comeuppance for another halfhearted defensive performance, another vain attempt to substitute offensive might for defensive consistency.

The Rockets had been infected by such viral hubris before, and then, in the aftermath of yet another humbling defeat, Lin spoke the truth. He didn't preference his statement as a resolution for the new year, but taken in context, the gist of his introspection was sufficiently profound.

 "If you live and die every night with your shot, you’re going to have a long, long, hard season." 

"Some of that is maturity," Lin said in attempting to explain the Rockets' stunning defensive inconsistency. "The good thing is we know what we’re capable of. We’re the same team that beat San Antonio twice on the road. And we’re the same team that lost to a lot of teams that, no disrespect to them but, our record is better and maybe we should have won those games.

"It’s there. We’ve just got to find a way to bring it every night."

The "it" of occasional defensive intensity is irrefutable. The Rockets have improved their defensive efficiency by nearly one full point over last season, currently allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions after producing a defensive rating of 103.5 in 2012-13. They ranks sixth in the NBA in opponent's field goal percentage at 43.8 percent heading into Wednesday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, a significant jump from last season when the Rockets ranked 15th while allowing the league to shoot 45.4 percent.

Intermittent spells of defensive zeal have revealed the influence of securing Dwight Howard as their anchor.

But when the Rockets have been bad, they've been atrocious, with their recent trend of defensive lethargy especially disconcerting. Houston has surrendered at least 110 points in a game 10 times this season already, with the Rockets 2-8 in such contests. The Kings shot 49.4 percent from the field at Toyota Center, just missing the Rockets' statistical benchmark for defensive doom.

On six occasions this season the Rockets have allowed an opponent to shoot 50 percent overall. The Rockets are winless in those particular contests.

After posting an impressive defensive rating of 101.4 over 17 November games, the Rockets allowed 105.0 points per 100 possessions in 16 games last month. Their respective monthly records were directly proportional to their defensive commitment, with the Rockets finishing 12-5 in November while winning just half of their December contests. The Rockets can offer justifiable excuses given their depleted rotation, particularly when considering the absences of two reputed defensive savants: reserve center Omer Asik was limited to just one game last month with a right thigh contusion and mystifying right knee woes while starting point guard Patrick Beverley has missed seven consecutive games with a fractured right hand. 

However, where the Rockets are falling short defensively aligns in lockstep with a dismal lack of prideful, consistent effort more so than any availability woes regarding Asik and Beverley.

"Defensively we’ve got to be better," forward Chandler Parsons said. "That’s where it all starts. We’re really good offensively, but we’re really, really good when we get stops and we can go out and get people off balance and go in transition.

The more stops we get the better our offense will be. I don’t know why we don’t do that on every single possession every night."

Against the Kings, the Rockets presented a microcosm of their defensive concerns. Lin, celebrated for recent defensive efforts against Tony Parker and Mike Conley, struggled mightily keeping Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas out of the lane, where he proved exceedingly disruptive. Thomas missed 11 of 17 attempts, but when he wasn't drawing fouls from Lin, he was gaining access to the paint via dribble penetration and collapsing the defense, often forcing Howard to rotate and help and leave his man, DeMarcus Cousins, open for a rim attack.

Howard endured his share of struggles with Cousins, whose nifty baseline spin and reverse layup in the waning moments ignited the comeback. And Parsons failed to effectively thwart Kings forward Rudy Gay, a notorious volume shooter who enjoyed a rare night of relative efficiency by scoring 25 points on 19 shots. But in the postmortem within the locker room, an underlying consensus was that as the Rockets bemoaned their porous defense, their passive-aggressive analysis of their issues laid the blame at the feet of shooting guard James Harden.

James Harden Issues?

Harden has been vilified for his ball-watching previously, with that unsightly habit on display in the first half as he lost sight of Kings rookie guard Ben McLemore and surrendered an alley-oop slam dunk over the defense. On several occasions Harden was caught out of position defensively and, even when he appeared dedicated to the chore, he frequently relented and closed a defensive possession by lazily flailing at the basketball. During one Gay post-up, Harden bailed on defense and swiped at the ball as Gay spun baseline and scored an easy layup.

For Harden, these episodes are nothing new. And later, it appeared that he longed to mitigate his defensive shortcomings with offensive brilliance, scoring 26 of his season-high 38 points in the second half to lead the surge into the lead. Yet, while no names were uttered, it seemed increasingly clear which member of the Rockets remains most culpable for defensive failings.

"I can’t speak for anybody else, but individually and collectively you’ve got to be better," Parsons said. "I know help defense is big and it should always be in on the weak side, but you’ve got to take on the challenge every night of stopping your man and beating your man.

"Guys are going to have some good nights and some guys are going to hit some tough shots, but we’ve got to play hard."

 "I can’t speak for anybody else, but individually and collectively you’ve got to be better." 

Perhaps most perplexed by the onerous task of solving the Rockets' defensive deficiencies is coach Kevin McHale, who must balance the reality that his team will improve when Asik and Beverley return against the urgency of finding immediate solutions.

The Rockets completed a grueling stretch of eight games in 12 days with their 31-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a span that did not allow for intense practices and the continued honing of defensive principles. Or, as McHale revealed, the paring down of those defensive principles.

Instead of burdening the Rockets with additional strategic complexities, McHale has opted for a more austere approach. However, no matter how much responsibility McHale removes from their plates, the Rockets face the individual onus of improving defensively in order to fortify their collective bottom line. As January kicks into high gear and the second half of the 2013-14 season beckons, the Rockets' next task is embracing the maturity needed to excel on both ends of the court and to fulfill the vast potential that accompanies a roster flush with exceptional talent.

"We haven’t got to the point yet (where) when shots aren’t going (in) we dig in more and get tougher defensively," McHale said. "Our shots affect us too much in our energy, our ability to run, our ability to rebound, our ability to do everything.

"We’ve got to get better at that. If you live and die every night with your shot, you’re going to have a long, long, hard season."