James Harden had a point. Thanks to a back injury to one of the referees in Thursday’s deflating loss to the Celtics — the Rockets had held a 26-point lead — the game was played with two refs, and there were missed calls aplenty. The two offensive fouls at the end of the game that went against Harden were questionable at best, as Harden was manhandled by Marcus Smart before committing the offending push-offs.
So when it comes to Houston collecting its fourth straight loss, there’s that. And there’s the fact that the Rockets were playing on Thursday without Chris Paul, forward Luc Mbah a Moute or center Clint Capela, three of their most effective defensive players. There’s also a particularly difficult span in the schedule, with back-to-back disappointing losses to the Clippers and Lakers followed by a stretch of eight road games out of 11. Put it all together, and the Rockets are in a slump.
But there are also red flags here that should have the Rockets wary. This is a team that was reconstructed last summer with the trade for Chris Paul and the signing of scrappy, defensive-minded veterans, all for the purpose of giving Houston a chance to have a postseason impact.
That starts with the defense, which has come undone during this four-game skid. What makes these Rockets different than last year’s bunch — a 55-win team that didn’t have real hopes for playoff success — has been their ability to play solid defense. Last year’s Rockets were a subpar defensive team, ranked 18th in defensive efficiency. They allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions.
This year’s group allows 103.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranks eighth. Before the last four games, though, they were seventh, at 102.5 points per 100 possessions. During the losing streak, they’ve been awful defensively: 114.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 28th in the league in that stretch. In their loss to Boston, the Rockets collapsed on the defensive end (offensively, too) in the second half, allowing 127.0 points per 100 possessions.
Again, missing Paul and Mbah a Moute on the perimeter, and Capela inside, obviously has been a factor in the team’s defensive slip. But there has been a lax approach on the defensive end that began with the two losses, both of which were inexcusable, to the LA teams.
That laxity has carried into this tougher stretch of schedule, and coach Mike D’Antoni must be careful not to allow his team to backslide into the kind of defense they played last season. Otherwise, they’ll be looking at much the same fate — good regular-season record, little hope for a meaningful playoff run.
The other red flag has to be the way the Rockets have played down the stretch in these four games. When the Rockets were 25-4 and the best team in the league, they were boosted by an outstanding record in clutch situations (within five points with five minutes to play) — Houston was 7-2 in those games, with a net rating of 21.2 (points per 100 possessions minus opponent points).
But clutch stats can very often be skewed by luck, and the Rockets’ clutch luck in the last four games has turned around completely. All four losses have included clutch situations, and the Rockets flopped each time. In all, they’re allowing 128.5 points per possessions in the clutch during the streak, and scoring 100.6. That’s a net rating of minus-27.9.
Of the Rockets’ four losses, the way they dropped the game in Boston especially stings. They led by 12 to start the fourth quarter, led by four with 2:03 to play and had a chance to take a four-point lead with 18.7 seconds to go before P.J. Tucker missed a free throw. And there were those calls against Harden.
“It’s almost like, what can you do?” guard Eric Gordon said in the locker room after the game. “You know, it’s tough to talk about the ending of a game like that.”
With their slipping defense and poor play in the clutch, the Rockets’ four-game losing streak has featured game after game with tough endings. There’s no need to panic — yet.
But these are issues worth watching in Houston, because they’ll determine whether the revamped Rockets are contenders in the West, or destined for another mid-May postseason exit.