Another week of Houston Rockets basketball down, with an ever-changing roster. Houston has rolled out a different starting lineup for every game since the James Harden trade. Part of this is natural- whenever Victor Oladipo was cleared to play he was going obviously shift the lineup. But part of this is also the consistent injury-laden roster. Knee soreness, back spasms, and ankle pain have all limited who can participate when. Danuel House, a sharpshooter in the starting lineup, has only played one game in 2021. Christian Wood has only played once since the last Round-Up. 

That said, the Houston Rockets have gone 3-1 since our last “Round-Up,” and are 4-3 since the trade after a big win over Washington. Houston hits a nice stretch of their schedule coming up. Of the next 11 teams the Rockets will see, only three are currently over the .500 mark. While that may jinx the ‘kets and set up some disappointing results, it should offer some room for Houston to gain momentum. 

In looking for a theme for the last week of Rockets’ basketball, one thing is clear: Houston can make adjustments. Whether it’s a natural consequence of the evolving lineups, or the explicit work of Coach Stephen Silas, Houston rolls with punches well. This was not a feature of the last few iterations of the Rockets. 

And, in recent memory, neither has defense. While the 2017-18 Rockets were statistically a very strong defense, this year’s Rockets bring energy to that half of the floor that is both new and welcomed.

Now let’s dive in…

Loss to Phoenix Positives

In looking at Houston’s positives, it is important to note that all positives for the Rockets came in their runs. Basketball is a game of runs, but in this game Houston’s limited roster really exacerbated the time that Victor Oladipo and Christian Wood were out of the game. 

Oladipo and Wood did much better in their second game together. They already were building a flow, and were clearly on the same page with when Wood should pop vs. when he should roll. This can only get better with time, but the quick improvement from the Chicago game to the Phoenix game was impressive. We all knew Stephen Silas is a sharp offensive mind, but clearly film study came in handy. 

Eric Gordon came alive against Phoenix as well, and in his third start of the season he was very strong. “Gordy” has scored 20 or more points in each start thus far, and is making it hard to see Danuel House returning tot he starting lineup. Further, he did well in forcing Devin Booker and Chris Paul off of the three-point line defensively.

Loss to Phoenix Problems

I’m not saying the Houston Rockets are going to be able to play a switching or trapping coverage well against the Phoenix Suns, but the drop coverage against Chris Paul and Devin Booker definitively did not work. 

In a drop coverage, the man playing the screener plays underneath the screen with space for the original defender to get through the commotion of the Pick and Roll. The advantage is you don’t get stuck in positional mismatches, and if the screened defender rushes it correctly the defense takes away the catch and shoot options. But what does it allow? Midrange jumpers. Where do Chris Paul and Devin Booker feast? Midrange. The Phoenix duo had 18 points off of midrange jumpers in the first half before Houston could get to their chalk board adjustments. 

And that adjustment? The drop man (read: big) “dropped” less. That’s when Deandre Ayton went to work catching cuts, lobs, and slips to the cup. Six of Ayton’s eleven made field goals, and all of his foul shots, came in the second half. 

Houston only lost the game by by six, and it feels nitpicky to say something “didn’t work.” Phoenix is a much improved team after an undefeated bubble run, and Houston played them competitively while missing John Wall and Danuel House. However, Houston, Wood, and Silas will need to figure out how to manage the pick and roll with drop coverage and help side, or more switching, or something to cut off baskets at key points in the game. 

Beating Detroit Positives

A win! After five losses in six contests, it was great to see the Rockets pull out a win. Some slip ups down the stretch made this game much closer than it needed to, but in 2021 a win is a win. THAT is the first positive. 

Then, when factoring in that Houston was missing Christian Wood on top of the still sitting John Wall and Danuel House, that they were able to find offensive balance is impressive. The Rockets had seven players in double figures even though they were missing three guys who all average double figures as well. 

This game was also the “return of PJ Tucker.While Tucker may be on the trade block, this was the first game in a while his offensive output matched his defensive strengths. Tucker his three patented corner threes and snuck inside for a pair of gritty buckets. It has been a while since Tucker was that engaged to the offense, and they needed every bit of it. 

Bench guard Sterling Brown was also involved in the action. With so many perimeter players hurt, Brown found his way to almost 26 minutes. 

And now: your weekly “this guy is obsessed with Jae’Sean Tate” part of the bit. Tate played perfectly positionless basketball. He had three blocks as a “big” and three steals as a “small.” Tate is the first Rockets’ rookie to record three blocks and three steals since Robert Horry was a first team All Rookie forward for the ketchup and mustard ‘kets. He was all over the floor, diving out for loose balls and poking his hands in passing lanes. His extra efforts shape the culture of the team.

Beating Detroit Problems

Stephen Silas has, to this point, had anything but a solid rotation. It is easy to understand just how his rotations would be confusing. But, with a limited batch of perimeter players, it’s hard to understand why Mason Jones didn’t get in the game more. He only played three minutes, which wasn’t enough to rack up a bunch of turnovers, missed shots, or missed defensive assignments. Weirder was that his time all came in the second quarter. With more time on the floor, he has scored more than 10 points per game over the previous four games. His absence felt like a missed opportunity.

 The other bit here is simple: Houston really should have lost this game. As the final buzzer expired, PJ Tucker was whistled for a foul on a Jerami Grant layup. Upon review, the foul and layup occurred after time expired and the Houston Rockets won… But if there had just been tenths of a second more, Tucker had fouled an 86-percent free throw shooter… But not fouled him so hard it didn’t go in.

Houston’s defense gave up 18 or more points to three different Pistons not named Blake Griffin or Derrick Rose. Grant, Wayne Ellington, and Delon Wright each gave Houston problems with they’re own positional flexibility. Even Josh Jackson, a similarly built athlete, scored 12 points off the bench. 

There are several teams across the NBA with similarly built, more talented wing players. If Houston wants to be competitive, they’re going to need to find a way to shut down positionless players. 

Beating Dallas Positives

Beating the Dallas Mavericks will always be a positive. The Mavs are an in-state rival with as bright a young star as you could have. Every time this iteration of the Houston Rockets beat Luka Doncic should be fun. And when they do it by 25? On a Saturday? Turn up! (Responsibly, there is a global pandemic. Be responsible.)

This game will go down as the first Boogie Cousins game of the season. Boogie isn’t old, but he has had several big injuries in the last three years that have led to a slow start this year. But against the Dallas Mavericks, Boogie broke out. Cousins was four of eight from three and racked in 28 points in just under 30 minutes. Further, where Wood has had trouble this season in drop coverage on pick and rolls, Cousins was great. Mavericks big man Willie Cauley-Stein had just six points, compared to 15 in the first meeting. 

Eric Gordon also caught fire and scored a season-high 33 points. Gordy continues to impress in his starting role and shoots noticeably better from deep as a starter than he does off of the bench. As for the Rockets bench, Kenyon Martin Jr. came through with big energy plays, including a momentum-swinging block on Boban Marjanovic. Martin had a quick four fouls, but his energetic 20 minutes helped the Rockets extend their lead. He was +14, his best mark of the season. 

Kenyon Martin found himself in the game because John Wall was on limited minutes, Victor Oladipo was unavailable, Danuel House was (you guessed it) still out, and Christian Wood was healing up. Silas went into Dallas missing, potentially, three starters and had a limited fourth came out with a 25-point win. We can get into schematics and break down what sets were effective. But at some point, the biggest thing was that the Houston Rockets came out, played super hard, and everything went right. 

Beating Dallas Problems

The Houston fanbase has already gotten to the “we have too many players” problem. Having seen some younger and inexperienced players shine, fans want them to get more time on the floor. But Houston also needs to figure out appropriate rotations with all of their starters available.

This sets up another tough situation for first-year head coach Stephen Silas. Silas thought he was entering a team with a set pair of stars, both of whom the entire offense would run through. Now he has Oladipo and Wall, two stars in the backcourt, Wood, a young frontcourt star, and a plethora of role player talent that he has to jigsaw together. Then, on nights like the Dallas game, Boogie Cousins looks like a star again.

Additionally, as the roster continues to be in flux. It’s hard for Silas to have a chance to figure it out before the games get too important to be playing around. Unless some guys get shipped out, fans will remember a play like the Martin block or Jones getting 28 and ask why they don’t play more. That seems silly, but Tilman Fertitta has already proven to be a temperamental owner. Pressure from the outside about role player rotations is not something Silas needs to have to put up with on top of everything he’s dealt with thus far. Frankly, I asked this myself after the Detroit game.

A good team, realistically, plays a strong eight-man rotation in the playoffs with an occasional ninth man helping out. A deep team will play nine players regularly in a close seven-game series. Having ten players can throw of rotations, or turn into a guessing game. There are finite minutes, and playing is a zero-sum game. If Wall plays 32 minutes, that’s 32 minutes in one of the five spots on the floor someone else can’t. If Martin Jr. needs 10 minutes, that’s ten minutes someone else loses. It’s a good problem to have at this point, as we’re about a month into the season… but it won’t be a good problem in April. 

Beating Washington Positives

Beating the Washington Wizards proves once and for all that Houston won the John Wall / Russell Westbrook trade, no? Jokes aside, it was evident that Wall used the opportunity to prove to management in DC that he wasn’t done. He had 24 points to Westbrook’s 18, but more importantly, he led his team to a 19 point victory and was clearly under Westbrook’s skin. The two got into it a few times (interestingly, Wizards star Bradley Beal appeared to side with Wall). 

Wall was a one-man wrecking crew on fast breaks, but he was not alone in beating Washington. Boogie Cousins chipped in 19 points, including four of eight from three-point land for a second consecutive game. Victor Oladipo, in his first time sharing the floor with Wall, added his own 20 points. Gordon shot his way to 20 points off of the bench. That was his high off the bench this season. 

What was fascinating with the full backcourt healthy was how Silas staggered their minutes. At any given point, two of the foursome of Wall, Oladipo, Gordon, and Jae’Sean Tate were on the floor. The speed at which those guys played with was visible and gave the Wizards fits. Down the stretch, Washington looked worn down. Houston won the fourth quarter 32-18, even though they had their reserves in for the final few minutes. Clearly, Silas had the Rockets set up for success over the Wizards. 

Beating Washington Problems

Hard to point out new problems in this one. The Wizards are another team with a losing record, but Houston was really firing on all cylinders and won this from start to finish. It will be interesting to see how Christian Wood fits in against Portland, but in the first matchup that served as his “coming out party.” A much healthier Portland struggled to keep up with him, so if he is out of whack that may be a chance for him to find his footing again. 

The biggest issue in the Washington game was a disinterested PJ Tucker. Tucker seems to be waiting on an extension that isn’t coming or a trade that we haven’t heard about. He was the cultural and emotional leader of the last few iterations of the Rockets in many ways. But, he’s lost the “three” from his “three-and-D” role. Tucker only attempted one field goal and had just two rebounds. With the way Tucker is playing he may see a serious minute decrease when Wood returns. If he wants out of Houston, he needs to make himself an appealing asset with his play.

Eric Gordon, another player on the Houston Trade Watch, has been playing extremely well in any role thrown at him. If PJ can do the same, the pairing could be sent out for two reasons. First, they are more valuable if they’re both playing well for whoever is on the receiving end. Second, This would be Houston cutting the final ties with the older Rockets. They’d officially have no one left on the roster from the 2017-18 season, and just Danuel House from the 2018-19 season (House was called up in his G League contract midseason amidst injuries). If you’re Rafael Stone and trying to give Stephen Silas a fresh start, it’s hard to be much fresher. PJ Tucker’s poor play on offense is in the way of that, even if he remains a stout defender.

New to the Houston Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr. 

News broke on the night of January 21st that Houston had traded Cleveland a top 55 protected second-round pick in the 2024 NBA draft for Kevin Porter Jr. The pick itself may never even convey, which means Houston gets Porter for (potentially) free. 

Coming out of high school, Porter was a top 15 player in the class of 2018. He played well in limited action at USC in his freshman year before declaring for the NBA draft. The 20th overall pick averaged 10 points, three rebounds, and two assists in 23 minutes his rookie year. The six-foot-four swingman has a high upside as a basketball player

Houston lucked into getting him for free because of a lot of non-basketball player things. Porter was limited at USC because of off the court issues and has had verbal altercations with the Cleveland front office. Rumors included throwing food across the locker room when his things were moved from the veteran locker area to the younger players corner. While he had to have impressed to be in the veterans’ area in the first place, him throwing a fit is exactly why he got moved to the “kids table” of the locker room. 

This move is a low-risk / high reward move for the Rockets. Low risk? What damage can Porter really do to a locker room that has survived the last two months of turmoil? Westbrook and Harden each forced their way out in an ugly, public fashion. What more can a 20-year old kid do? And high reward? Let’s say porter gets to the potential his five-star, top 15 projection was just 24 months ago. That puts him in the same vein as RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Darius Garland, Darius Bazely, and Zion Williamson. Talen Horton-Tucker and Tyler Herro were in the same class and just given four stars. Porter Jr. can play, if he can get right. Why not let John Lucas, Stephen Silas, and a trio of veterans in Oladipo, Wall, and Cousins to help him out?

For more on sports, sneakers, and the Houston Rockets, follow me @painsworth512 for more, and give our podcast “F” In Sports a listen wherever you listen to podcasts!

About Author

Parker Ainsworth

Senior NBA Writer, Co-Host of "F" In Sports and The Midweek Midrange. Parker is a hoops head, "retired" football player, and sneaker aficionado. Austinite born in Houston, located in Dallas after a brief stint in LA... Parker is a well-traveled Texan, teacher, and coach. Feel free to contact Parker- https://linktr.ee/PAinsworth512

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