The Houston Rockets are in an unfamiliar spot in late March. They are now the first NBA franchise to both win 20 consecutive games and lose 20 consecutive games. Houston is in the midst of what will be just their fourth losing season since drafting Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. These are uncharted territories for Rockets fans… so let’s dive into what’s been going on.
The Streaking Elephant in the Room
The Houston Rockets’ losing streak has become the talk of the NBA. People are trying to figure out how the same team that won six out of seven games following the James Harden trade has not won a game since. During that brief stretch of winning, Houston was leading the league in several defensive categories… But since? Houston has regressed back to the worst net rating in the NBA.
It’s not just that Houston is losing; they’re losing embarrassingly. Houston lost 20 straight before Monday night, but within that time are just 3-18 against the spread. That means Houston was underperforming their Vegas odds nearly every night.
Within that stretch, Houston has hit several speed bumps. John Wall missed extended time and may need some work done on his knee before the season’s end. Christian Wood missed almost the entire streak with a second ankle injury. Newly acquired Kevin Porter Jr. fulfilled a G League assignment before suffering a quad contusion upon being called up. Danuel House was also injured. And Victor Oladipo, in part of his recovery, can’t play in back-to-backs.
That didn’t make it easier. Losing 20 games in a row takes a toll on the fans, players, and coaches. Even when studying the Philadelphia “Process,” the Cavs tank jobs of the past, or other losses that seemed intentional, one thing was obvious: organizations tank. Organizations play the long game, using drafts, etc. But players and coaches? They’re competing, daily, for their jobs.
Sorrow with Silas
Speaking of those players and coaches, please take note of the man with the clipboard in Houston. Stephen Silas, after running a historically efficient and potent offense in Dallas last season, signed up to run the Houston Rockets offense that features two MVPs in the backcourt and Christian Wood in the frontcourt. By the fourth week of the season, that dream was gone. Silas was dealt as difficult a first season as a rookie head coach could ask for.
This isn’t to point fingers at the players who left or the Rockets’ front office. It is to say one thing: this guy is fighting. He understands the nature of coaching. He was on the sidelines as an assistant for 20 years, waiting for his shot, and now he’s suffering through 20 consecutive losses.
Houston, and their fans, need to be sure he has a fair chance to work with a strong team. He needs to have a full offseason, a regular and healthy roster, and a normal shot at success. Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovic would have struggled to win in Houston this year… there’s no reason to be upset with Silas for having troubles.
And man, he so clearly wants this to work in Houston. The pain and agony, after a near win in Houston’s 20th loss, was evident. He paused mid-question, pulled himself together and collected himself, and simply said he and the team had to be better
Stephen Silas: “It’s like indescribable for a win in March of this crazy season, but I’m just so proud of the guys. When you’re going through it and fighting so hard and you just see the disappointment in the player’s faces after loss after loss after loss…” pic.twitter.com/iXuuT5QX7y— Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) March 23, 2021
The Houston Rockets won their first game in 46 days on Monday night against the Toronto Raptors of Tampa Bay. Fans feared after a tough, nail-biting loss on Sunday, the Rockets would be exhausted. John Wall and Christian Wood both played over their minutes restriction Sunday. Kevin Porter was limited with an injury, and he, Victor Oladipo, and Eric Gordon all missed Monday’s game to recover.
But on Monday, heroic efforts from Wall and Wood proved very important. John Wall had his first triple-double since 2016, Wood scored 19 second-half points, and with the focus on them, Sterling Brown and Jae’Sean Tate shot a combined seven of 11 from the three-point line. A tremendous team effort led to an 18-point win over the Raptors, a team that feels much farther than 21-months away from an NBA Championship. But if any team knows how quickly the fall from grace can be, it’s Houston.
That said, Houston did some detail-oriented things very well. The 1/5 pick and roll (often John Wall and Christian Wood), with an opposite side flair screen, provided an offensive spark in the late second quarter and carried throughout the game. Wood’s diversity in his roll kept defenders on their toes, and Wall’s ability to puncture the defense gave them no time to think about their coverage. The flair screen provided enough commotion for the opposite perimeter defender to be unable to sink and cut off the ball. Further, when the solution became pack it in, Houston hit the threes, including six from the corners, largely because the defense had to scramble out after cutting off the pick and roll.
But the biggest difference was in making shots. Houston made more tight (defender within 2-4 feet) and open shots (defender within 4-6 feet) than they had in the nearly two months prior. Houston shot nearly 39-percent from three as a team. That’s nearly seven percentage points better than their average on the season.
It’s weird to think that, even after diagnosing the successful set they stuck with, it really comes down to making shots. Houston finally did- and thus, they finally won.
Kevin Porter Jr. Needs the Keys
Absent from the win was the Kevin Porter Jr. moment because he was absent from the game. KPJr. may not have played a direct hand in the win, but he has demonstrated in his short time in Houston he is as much the future of the franchise as anyone. Before he injured his quad early in the Detroit game on March 19th, Porter Jr. had suited up just five times in Houston. He had over 20 points in three of those outings. He needs to be sure his quad is ready to go before returning, but his dynamic scoring makes him salient in Houston.
Porter Jr. is a young and crafty lefty, which ought to feel familiar to Houston Rockets fans. The Washington native has a dangerous midrange pull-up and has shown the ability to alter rim finishes around and through defenders. He has a fantastic feel for where the other nine players on the floor are; he’ll move a dropped big man with his eyes and flip the ball to a back-cutting wing behind him.
While he is developing a consistent three-pointer, his ability to shift gears is what makes him stick out on film. Much like the last dominant lefty in town, Porter Jr. can go from 0-60 miles per hour in a blink and hit a full stop from full-speed on a dime. And yes, even though it’s been in the midrange, he can propel away from the defense after stopping on a dime for a smooth step-back jumper. He gets so much separation in his change of direction; it’s hard not to see the similarities he has with Harden. It’s been a reference to who Porter Jr. is since his prep days.
Much like Houston handed the keys to the franchise to James Harden, they need to prepare to hand them to Porter Jr. Together, Porter Jr., and Wood project to be the long-term duo you see so many title contenders have. Porter Jr. is also five years younger than Christian Wood. It’s not unreasonable to think there could be a fifteen-year career in Houston for the lefty.
Porter Jr.’s past also bears mentioning. He has, at times, been immature off of the basketball court. At USC, Porter Jr. missed time suspended for an undisclosed issue. But KPJr. is just 20 years old… He needs a chance to grow up and get right. And if he does, Houston gets lefty all over again.
KJ Martin: 6’6” Rim Protector
To be a shot blocker, you have to be reckless. You have to leap at a dunk understanding you may get dunked on.
Most who are wreckless are young. Being young and reckless are synonymous because the lack of bad experiences yields courageous decisions.
Kenyon Martin Jr. is the youngest player on the Houston Rockets by nearly a year (he just turned 20 in January, KPJr. turns 21 in May). KJ, who was called up simultaneously with Porter Jr., is much shorter than his father. Where Kenyon Martin Senior was a true power forward, “KJ” is built more like a swingman. But, because of Wood’s injury and other roster struggles, Houston has asked KJ to play a small-ball big man for long stretches in Houston. Martin is young and reckless, and thus he is quickly becoming Houston’s best rim protector.
KJ MARTIN BLOCKS RUDY GOBERT AT THE APEX pic.twitter.com/TQgiIwWvEv— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) March 13, 2021
KJ MARTIN BLOCKS RUDY GOBERT AT THE APEX pic.twitter.com/TQgiIwWvEv— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) March 13, 2021
The TuckWagon Leaves the Station
My chest pic.twitter.com/V0qHLphfwE— Parker😷Ainsworth (@painsworth512) March 20, 2021
We knew this was coming and even wrote about the prospective trades… but man, it is hard to say goodbye to PJ Tucker. Tucker was the heart, soul, and culture for the last successful iteration of the Houston Rockets in many ways. He was an award-winning Sneaker King and a star of the League Fits runway. Tucker was a corner three specialist for the analytically driven and a tough scrapper for those who loved the old-school. He’d cover whomever, whenever, and in whatever scheme… and do it well. He became the centerpiece of the small ball experiment (no pun intended).
But to get personal, I connected with Tucker when he was a freshman at Texas in 2003-04. The Longhorns were coming off of a Final Four appearance, led by undersized point guard TJ Ford. PJ Tucker (with LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson) came in to carry the torch. Unlike Ford, Aldridge, and Gibson… Tucker’s position was an enigma. Tucker was broad, strong and tough like a center. He was explosive like, and the height, of a perimeter slasher. He was a dominant college player and a relatable one for “tweeners” everywhere. Myself included.
When Tucker left for the draft, tweeners weren’t valuable. Tucker was a second-round pick who played 17 games in Toronto before heading overseas for a better opportunity. He returned six seasons later stronger, leaner, and with an undeniably lethal corner three. The cleanest dresser in the NBA had done the dirty work…and arrived at an NBA that, by 2013, was looking for tweeners. Tucker played in Phoenix for several years and Toronto for another partial season before coming back to the Lone Star State.
Houston’s success helped launch Tucker’s sneaker collection, pancake obsession, and grit into stardom. In turn, he gave an offensive juggernaut a defensive identity: switching. Tucker would guard anyone, anywhere. The scheme became “let’s all do that.”
Now that Tucker is in Milwaukee, he can continue chasing the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. But his impact on Houston, Texas, and Texans is undeniable. Thank you for your time, energy, and effort PJ. H-Town forever.