NEW YORK — On Wednesday in Houston, Chris Paul had rookie Gary Clark over to his house. The Houston Rockets were blown out at home the previous night, 104-85, scoring just 15 points in the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was their fifth loss in six games, absolutely not the way they envisioned starting the season after getting as close as you possibly can to the NBA Finals.
“I was saying I can’t imagine how this is probably blowing his mind as a rookie,” Paul said. “Like, oh, this ain’t never gonna get right. So, thankfully, I’ve been around long enough to know that how it starts ain’t always how it ends and vice versa. I’m actually, you know, when the game happens and we lose I’m pissed or whatnot, but then when I realize everything else that’s going on, I’m cool.”
As cool as Paul may be, before the Rockets’ practice on Thursday in Brooklyn he did not have much to say as to why they have been so out of sorts. He dropped the term “make-or-miss league” and said that nobody is “hitting the panic button,” both of which would be obvious squares in a game of Struggling Team Bingo.
In fairness to Paul, he has only played two games next to fellow future Hall of Famer James Harden. Starting small forward James Ennis, the man who was supposed to keep Houston’s defense together in the absence of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, missed all of its winless homestand against the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland. A reporter asked Paul what it would take for the Rockets to get their swagger back, and he was a bit glib.
“Winning,” Paul said. “Trying to get everybody on the court. I’m trying to give you all something. I know y’all gotta write something. I have nothing. But, I mean, it’s just simple.”
Does it take just one win to change the momentum and get things going in the right direction?
“I don’t know,” Paul said. “I don’t know. You know what I mean? I don’t know. What we’re going to do is we’re going to practice, and we’re going to hoop tomorrow and keep building until we get our full group back. If we won every game right now, we still wouldn’t have what we need ’cause James ain’t playing. So we won’t know anything until we see what we look like.”
At that point, the Rockets hadn’t looked anything like they did last season. Asked where they were with their defense, coach Mike D’Antoni responded with a laugh and a single word: “Last?”
They were actually 24th in defensive rating, per NBA.com. Houston has been fouling too much, rebounding terribly, not protecting the paint (it is mere percentage points away from being dead last in both frequency and field-goal percentage on opponents’ shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass) and, when P.J. Tucker has been on the bench, it has been literally the worst defensive team of all time, per Vice Sports’ Michael Pina. If you were down on the Rockets after losing Ariza and Mbah a Moute in free agency, you’ve probably been pretty pleased with your preseason prediction.
It would be one thing, however, if Houston had merely had a tough time on defense. The surprising part about the first couple of weeks of the season is that it has been even worse on the other end. Entering their game against the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, the Rockets were 26th in offensive rating and 28th (!) in net rating behind only the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns. They have not been getting to the free-throw line, finishing at the rim or shooting well from 3-point range. Opposing teams have dropped back in pick-and-roll coverage, and they have largely failed to make them pay. When D’Antoni offers non-explanations like “we just have to overall play better,” it is boring, but not wrong.
“There’s no reason why we’re like we are right now,” D’Antoni said.”No reason we can put a finger on.”
“What I do know is that I’m grateful it’s not a football season,” Paul said.
After the final buzzer at Barclays Center, Tucker yelled his way down the corridor toward the visitors locker room: “Grind it out! Grind it out! Grind it out! That’s how we play! That’s how the Rockets play!”
Tucker was fired up because it was the first time this season they had competed like this. Houston beat Brooklyn 119-111 by finding the desperation you’d expect from a team that needed a win in the worst way. You might define Rockets basketball by their affinity for the 3-point line, their aversion to midrange jumpers or their heavy use of isolations, but to Tucker, it’s about what they do on the other end.
“Just leaving it all out there,” Tucker told CBS Sports. “Playing hard. Talking, communicating. Leaving it all out there, man.”
It is worth noting that this was not some sort of wire-to-wire triumph. In the first quarter, Houston gave up 26 points in the paint and allowed Brooklyn to shoot 71.4 percent. The Nets looked a lot like last year’s Rockets, hunting switches and zeroing in on matchup advantages. They got to the rim whenever they wanted, and they created open, in-rhythm 3-pointers over and over again.
Late in the second quarter, a frustrated Carmelo Anthony blatantly pushed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the back rather than fighting around a screen. A corner 3 from Spencer Dinwiddie put the Nets up by 14, and in the ensuing timeout, Paul instructed the coaches to let the players talk among themselves. Enough was enough.
In the huddle, Paul challenged his teammates to string together some stops. If the Rockets were going to run the Nets off the 3-point line, they needed the low man to be ready at the rim and everybody else to make their rotations. “We were yelling, cursing,” Anthony said, and the timeout directly led to a 13-4 run. In the second half, they held Brooklyn to a modest (by 2018’s standards) 50 points on 37.5 percent shooting.
“We could have let go of the rope and chalked this up as a loss,” Paul said. “It was bigger than just winning the game. When we get in February and April and stuff like that, winning this game or losing this game isn’t that big of a deal. It’s how you react to the adversity during the game.”
To be clear, Houston wouldn’t have earned the victory without Paul being a superhero. This team is modern in many ways, but having an army of playmakers is not one of them. He scored 32 points on 13-for-27 shooting with 11 assists, seven rebounds, two steals, two blocks and two buzzer-beating 3-pointers. The Rockets were outscored by 12 points in the 11 minutes he spent on the bench. He told AT&T SportsNet he was “tired as hell” before he walked off the court.
“That’s as good as it gets,” D’Antoni said. “That’s who Chris is. His will, his heart will not let you lose. Especially when times are tough. And he knew times were tough. He had to find even more within himself, and he did it. That’s why he’s one of the best. He just has an unbelievable spirit that won’t let you lose.”
Beyond Paul’s performance, there was a lot to feel good about: Anthony’s season-high 28 points on 9-for-12 shooting; Clint Capela’s 22-point, 13-rebound, five-assist, two-block effort; Tucker’s usual, all-over-the-court defensive intensity and the way Houston collectively shut Dinwiddie down after he got wherever he wanted in the first half. D’Antoni was relieved enough to offer some levity describing the lead-up to the game.
“Well, the team can’t panic, I can’t show ’em panic,” D’Antoni said. “But inside, I’m panicking. That’s what we do as coaches.”
So, will this one win be enough for the Rockets to get their swagger back? That is still unclear, but at least they’ve now shown they are capable of sticking together when everything’s going wrong. Also, Harden will be back in the lineup on Saturday in Chicago. That can’t hurt.
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