After an eventful Week Three, the fourth week of Rockets’ basketball was all about learning on the fly. The Houston Rockets are at the beginning of the post-James Harden era following the blockbuster trade with the Nets and having to navigate the future of the franchise. To put it kindly, Houston’s roster was influx the entire week. John Wall did not dress out for any of the three contests, Eric Gordon missed two games, and Danuel House continues to be absent with a nagging back injury. Further, after Harden’s exodus, players had to clear physicals and waivers before they could be added to the roster… leaving even more holes. 

Houston continues play hard under new coach Stephen Silas. All three games this week, even when shorthanded, were five-point games down the stretch. Sure, the San Antonio loss stretched further than that, but the competitive drive out of the Rockets is commendable. For all his accolades, there were periods throughout the Mike D’Antoni tenure where the Houston Rockets were visibly bored with the regular season. These Rockets have obviously different goals, and thus the regular season has a different value. Regardless, the fight is much more fun. 

Win Over San Antonio Positives

The first and most obvious positive take away from this game is that Sterling Brown can be a real part of the backcourt rotation. With Wall and Gordon sitting, and newly acquired Victor Oladipo yet to be cleared, Sterling Brown logged almost 37 minutes, scored 23 points, and helped steady the ship at key moments of the game. 

The second and most fun positive take away of the game was the emergence of point-forward Jae’Sean Tate. The 25-year-old rookie had 13 points and 10 assists as he orchestrated Silas’ offense. Tate’s flexibility in the rotation will be crucial for the Houston Rockets. He can run the offense as a point guard and allow for the score-first guards to run through other actions. He is stout enough to defend four of the five positions on the floor. Jae’Sean Tate was one of Rafael Stone’s least discussed signings of the off-season, but he’s been one of the most consistently good ones.

Obviously, the story of Houston’s youth this year will continue to hang on the back of Christian Wood. Wood was great offensively as a big that can stretch the floor and offer space for slashers, but he was not the only new face to make an impact. Mason Jones came off the bench and scored nine points on 50-percent shooting. 

The biggest “win” of this win was the stretch over the last four minutes of play. Down 99 – 90, Wood hit a big three on a kick out from Brown. Then a hustle play by Brown led to a Tate fastbreak ending in a three. Tate carved up the defense, later finding Wood for another three to tie the game. The rookie also took a big charge, and had a game-sealing basket with 1:10 to play. Jae’Sean, affectionately known on #Rockets as Bae’Sean, stole the show. His motor was contagious, and the Rockets came away with a big win. 

Win Over San Antonio Problems

Houston continues to have problems in defending the rim. Jae’Sean Tate and David Nwaba are great at defending basket for perimeter guys, but Houston is waiting on Christian Wood to have more of a presence there. If Wood can’t do it and is thus more of a forward than a center, Houston needs to look for rim protection at or before the deadline. The tricky thing is that offensively Houston NEEDS to play Wood, so their rim protector needs to be someone that plays alongside him, NOT in his absence. 

With the current roster, their options seem limited. DeMarcus Cousins is a great addition but he is limited on defense after his injuries. Rodions Kurucs is six-foot-nine, and the next tallest listed player is six-foot-six. 

Height is not the only form of rim protection, but this is when some of their age comes into play. Having undersized bigs protecting the rim requires a lot of energy and explosiveness. In Houston, PJ Tucker used to be that guy but it’s not reasonable to ask a 36-year old to do that every night. Nwaba and Tate have the ability, but Nwaba is coming off of an Achilles injury a year ago and Tate is in his rookie year. Both are learning how they fit into a current defensive system on the fly. Usually, they could ease their way in… but currently, Houston needs them to step up. 

Loss to San Antonio Positives

After a great effort in the first game of this series, Sterling Brown didn’t play in Game 2. Gordon, House, and Wall each continued to sit. Victor Oladipo was on the Rockets’ sideline but unable to play because the trade was still being processed. Thus Houston was looking around for guard help. In stepped Mason Jones. 

Jones entered the starting lineup and with limited backcourt competition. He played over 35 minutes, had 24 points, and shot six of eight from the three-point line.  While Mason Jones may not be a 35-minute per game played in the traditional rotation, his spark on offense was impressive and encouraging. 

In the roller coaster that is Ben McLemore, his hot shooting hand returned in Game 2. McLemore was four of seven from beyond the arc, and added in his own 21 points. In a game where everyone is available, having Jones and McLemore as hot shooters off the bench really adds another level to this roster. 

While Wood has his defensive struggles, he did add his own 24 points and 18 rebounds. The Rockets need Wood’s regular double-double, and as long as he is productive by scoring as the screener and as a rebounder he will play a lot of important minutes for the Rockets. 

Defensively, Nwaba and Tate continue to impress. While their offensive contributions are up and down, the two play with high energy and effort on defense. Both switch onto multiple positions on the ball and are great at finding help side position off-ball. When the whole roster is available, if one of them can find a consistent role in the offense, that guy is going to get 36 or more minutes a night. 

Loss to San Antonio Problems

It seems elementary to blame a loss on depth, but in this game, Houston played eight players. Of those eight, two players had played very little this season and one (Rodions Kurucs) just arrived from Brooklyn two days perior. This was evident in the scoreboard. Houston opened up to an early lead, held on to it by a thread at halftime, and then was outscored significantly in both the third and fourth quarter. It also led to a lot of sloppy offense as the game wore on, as Houston had almost twice as many turnovers as San Antonio. 

That said, the biggest issue defensively continues to be letting a team get into the lane. If the opposing team can spread Houston into a five-out look and can be intentional with who the opposite backline defenders are, they are able to get to the rim with relative ease. Murray, DeRozan, and Johnson all killed Houston in the lane. 

Stephen Silas continues to navigate this trying season as well as anyone could imagine. Between turmoil in the locker room and an ever-evolving roster, Houston could be in a much worse place. While that’s impressive, Silas is an offensive-minded coach. In Dallas, he served in an offensive-coordinator role, and now that he’s the boss there are issues with Houston’s defense. How he develops this team in that area will be something to follow…  

As seen in the shot chart, San Antonio got a lot of shots at the rim and in the paint. Part of this is Coach Pop being Coach Pop. He saw the Rockets’ defense on the 14th, made a plan, and was able to execute it on the 16th. Part of it is depth. Houston had very spent legs, very inexperienced players, and thus gave up a lot of drives after poor rotations. What Silas does to work on this, and what Stone can do with the roster, will be the story of the Rockets’ season.

Loss to Chicago Positives

Welcome to the show, Mr. Victor Oladipo. Oladipo finished with the second-most points in a Rockets debut, finishing just a couple of buckets behind his predecessor James Harden. Oladipo had 32 points on 23 shots in his 32 minutes, and he hit some clutch shots down the stretch to keep the game close. While he had a crucial turnover with a minute left, he looks like he fits well with Wood and Gordon. There were moments in the game that felt like Oladipo could be a savior (and yes, there moments that it felt like he needs a month to get used to playing with everyone). While Wood has proven to be a great pick and pop player with John Wall, Wood and Oladipo were tremendous with Wood as a traditional roll man. 

Tate’s defensive intensity was palpable, and Houston needs to find a way to expand that. Whenever the roster is healthy and available Tate will, likely, be the sixth man that comes in to give a spark. He demonstrated that he can playmaker in the halfcourt, stick with the likes of LaVine defensively, and is good for one high-energy play every couple of minutes he is in the game. Similarly, Nwaba’s perimeter defense played a big part in the almost-comeback by Houston on Monday night. Houston tied the second, won the third, and won the fourth quarters because of their defensive intensity. Rim protection is a problem, but after a couple of years of poor defensive efforts in regular-season contests, it’s great to see Silas’s squad compete. 

Loss to Chicago Problems

As was mentioned, Houston won quarters two through four… but lost the game by five. That first quarter, in which Houston lost 28 – 16, was the difference. It was in part that Houston was integrating Oladipo and a healthy Gordon into the offense, but it was also because Houston bluntly shot the ball poorly. 

Shooting struggles happen, and Houston made adjustments… but those adjustments took too long. 

Chicago’s blueprint for Houston was telling. Houston had some pair of Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Thaddeus Young, and Daniel Gafford on the floor. This combination of big guys punished the Rockets on the glass, and it looked like it took Houston off-guard. Again, Houston adjusted… but it was too little too late.  

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the back-breaker came on a straight-line drive to the rim. Houston had closed the gap and was on a run. Oladipo made a deep three-pointer to cut the lead to just three points. After spending some clock, the Chicago Bulls spread the Rockets out. They flipped the ball to Zach LaVine, and Markkanen walked up to set a screen on Gordon defending. Gordon cheated the screen, LaVine read it, and got to the basket unimpeded for a dagger lay-up with 1:40 left to play. Houston had time left, but that stifled the run back the Rockets were on. Again, the Rockets have trouble protecting the rim and give up a key basket in a loss.

Houston is set up in a basic “drop-top” coverage, with Gordon a little over-eager to beat the screen…
As LaVine attacks, the rotation to the rim is slow, giving LaVine what amounts to a finger roll from lay up lines.

So… What’s Next?

This team needs some time off for two things. For one, they need the rest. After missing time with back spasms, sharp shooter Danuel House is going through the COVID quarantine protocol. John Wall is listed as day to day with knee soreness. Gordon, Brown, and others are all playing so many minutes it’s hard to rely on them suiting up for a full three or four game week.

This leads us to the (potentially) gut-wrenching piece of analysis: PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon, as the last two remnants of “good ol’ days,” need to be moved. Send PJ Tucker to an LA team or Miami for young talent. Both would appreciate a veteran locker room presence that can dial in for a reduced role on a championship contender. Send Gordon to Philly or Milwaukee and let his 30-footers help with spacing on a contender. Houston can develop one of their younger guy who’s timeline matches up with the Rockets.

It’s hard to see fan favorites like the Sneaker King and Gordy go, but it’s time. The interesting thing will be, given Stone’s brief but busy tenure, what comes in if they go out? When does the move happen? Or do the Houston Rockets and Stone offer a goodwill contract to Tucker as a mentor for Tate?

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

1 Comment

    I am a very long time Ohio State Fan. Jae’Sean Tate grew up here and played four years for the Ohio State Buckeyes. We love him. He was never the most skilled player on the floor, but he was always the toughest and hardest working. The heart of a lion. Tate was sent out to guard 4s and 5s in Big Ten play.

    The Big Ten is a black and blue league. The good teams always feature really big tough inside players. Tate took them on and stymied them with toughness and hard work. In a game when Tate was tying up a guy 6 inches taller than he, the television analyst said don’t tell Tate that he is six inches shorter than the guy he is guarding, he doesn’t know.

    We said that if we had five guys who played like that we would win the Big Ten, and other teams would hate to play us.

    Congratulations to the Rockets on signing Tate. you are going to love him too.

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