What a letdown that was… n inspiring 2018 playoffs, nearly dethroning the Golden State Warriors, and some intriguing acquisitions had many fans thrilled for the start of the season. This was before the Houston Rockets came out and delivered a dud to a light crowd at Toyota Center who probably had their attention more closely glued to the Houston Astros.
There were a number of concerning elements to the Rockets’ play. In reality, game one is far from a significant litmus test. This was perhaps the shot in the arm Houston needed before embarking on a tough stretch throughout the rest of October.
An issue of intensity
The most substantial concern comes from Houston’s defensive performance. As a team that made outstanding strides defensively last season, but lost key cogs in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. That side of the ball was going to be more closely scrutinized at the beginning of this campaign.
And, well, they definitely provided some great material for the midday talking heads of the world. The Rockets were slow on rotations and lost players who were active off ball. They also conceded an abhorrent 76 points in the paint and just looked generally lethargic. Anecdotes and Twitter conversation led me to believe that the crowd was quite dull along with being sparse, so maybe that played a part in this sad performance.
On the other hand, the New Orleans Pelicans were ferocious on offense. Fantastic performances by Nikola Mirotic and Pelican debutante Julius Randle, along with a monster game by Anthony Davis (worthy of his MVP projection), were far too much for Houston. These three players combined for 87 points on 59 percent shooting, and were beasts on the glass, especially Mirotic who recorded seven offensive rebounds.
Rebounding was another stark deficiency for the Rockets in this matchup. New Orleans is a particularly large team, as seen by the sizes of their three studs mentioned above. They grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to Houston’s eight. Also regarding size, the Pelicans masterfully ran numerous actions to rotate Davis onto smaller defenders, many times being Chris Paul, which led to tons of easy buckets down low.
What the new guys provided
My dubious belief in Carmelo Anthony has been discussed before, but I’ll keep the hate to a minimum here. Anthony showed passion and the home crowd really seemed to get behind him. He was one of the culprits in the aforementioned blown rotations, but he is integrating into a new defense, with a recently departed “defensive coordinator” in Jeff Bzdelik to boot. So it’s fair to excuse some of that in the early going if the effort is there. Anthony didn’t shoot well, and faced the defensive wrath of Davis a couple times, but the enthusiasm gives me some hope.
James Ennis, an encouraging addition from a defensive standpoint, didn’t show us much on that side of the ball or on offense, where he put up a decent eight points on 3-of-7 shooting.
Michael Carter-Williams, who is more of a questionable fit in Houston, was largely impressive with his energy and defense. The aspect of his game that will be most conducive to his integration with the team is his 3-point shot. He put up three of them – two were very ugly and barely grazed the rim, but he stuck one from the corner. That corner three is all that the Rockets realistically need from him, similar to PJ Tucker’s offensive role last season.
Carter-Williams shot 23 percent on corner threes last season, and is shooting 30 percent for his career. By comparison, Tucker shot 40 percent from that spot last season. There’s a drastic leap to make, but the work and focus inevitably being devoted to that shot will be interesting to track this year.
The combination of James Harden, CP3 and Clint Capela – Houston’s own Big 3 – were an incredible 42-3 when all playing during last year’s regular season. They’re off to a poor start in running back that success, but Houston fans should maintain their high expectations for this season.
The Rockets have started slow in the past. 2017 began with a good-but-not-great 5-3 start, and 2016 kicked off with a similar 3-3 run. We’ve seen, as all teams do, lapses in effort during the regular season from this squad. But I’d like to think it’s okay for an MVP-hangover to last one game.
The Pelicans are also a very good team, and their next meeting with Houston on Dec. 29 will be sure to feature the story line of the Oct. 17 beating. Providing some additional fire.
If a fire doesn’t spark in the Rockets for their next matchup on Oct. 20, I’m not sure what will. Harden and the boys will visit Staples Center for a truly historic occasion – LeBron James’ home opener as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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