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Rockets Free Fall Continues in 20-Point Loss to Magic

James Harden and Mike D'Antoni called the Rockets' 126-106 loss to the Magic on Sunday the low point of their season, and frankly, it's hard to disagree.

Houston secured its first four-game losing streak of 2019-20 at the Toyota Center on Sunday, limping through the contest from the opening minute. The Magic bullied the Rockets on the boards and beat them from beyond the arc. Harden struggled again and Orlando's interior scorers feasted. The Rockets are now No. 6 in the Western Conference after Sunday's loss, and a relatively soft schedule ahead may be their only saving grace. Then again, the opponent may be immaterial after losses to the Knicks, Hornets and Magic in the last week. The solution to the Rockets' dismal stretch can only arise from within its roster. 

Here are three takeaways as the Rockets fell to 39–24 in 2019-20. 

Dismal Defensive Effort

Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni was succinct in summing up Houston's loss on Sunday. 

"We're not aggressive as we need to be," D'Antoni said postgame. "And we're paying for it."

There you have it. Houston limped through all four quarters on the defensive end on Sunday, allowing 110-plus points for the seventh time in the last eight games. Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon made 10 of their 12 combined field goals in the paint. Orlando shot 48.4% from the field and 44.8% from three as Houston walked its way to closeouts on the perimeter. A defense that was previously stout and swarming has looked increasingly slight in recent weeks. 

One possession in the first quarter illustrated the Rockets' struggles on Sunday. Aaron Gordon missed a layup attempt at the rim, then missed a pair of consecutive put-back attempts. But the possession didn't end there. Gordon secured his third offensive rebound of the possession, then converted an easy bucket as he stood above the Rockets' collection of wings. Houston is susceptible to getting beat on the glass to a degree given its size disadvantage on a given night. But possessions like Gordon's indicate a far more concerning problem: a lack of effort. 

Harden Limps Through Loss

It can only take one night to turn things around, but we're currently in the midst of a truly dismal stretch for Harden. The NBA's scoring leader is just 8-42 from three in Houston's four-game losing streak, and he went 3-10 from beyond the arc in Sunday's loss to Orlando. Harden has been one of the league's worst high-volume shooters since the calendar turned to 2020. Sunday night continued the troubling trend. 

Harden's style over the past two months isn't appreciably different than what we've seen in recent seasons. He's still the NBA's leader in step-back threes by a significant margin, and Harden is averaging a healthy 1.12 points per isolation possession. Yet despite the stylistic similarity to previous years, the results haven't been the same. Harden is clanking triples and missing point-blank layups. So how can he get back on track? Perhaps time is the only antidote to Harden's current woes.

"Keep fighting. Keep pushing," Harden said postgame. "It’s all you can do at this point.”

Three-Point Woes Spur Defensive Struggles

Most teams insist on turning their defense into offense, using turnovers and opponent misses to create opportunities in transition and beyond the arc. The Rockets often take an opposite path. 

Houston is fueled by its three-point shooting, and its best defensive efforts emerge on strong shooting nights. As the Rockets struggled from the field on Sunday, their defense slumped. Orlando snagged 13 offensive rebounds and tallied 52 points in the paint, taking advantage of a Houston team that was slow getting back and damn-near glacial closing out onto opposing shooters. The Rockets' shooting issues have translated to a shoddy defensive effort of late. 

"Our defense isn't helping our offense," Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said postgame. "Our defense hasn't been great. We've given up a lot of easy points, a lot of second chance points. ...We need our defense to get stops so we're not taking the ball out of the basket every time."

Up Next: vs. Timberwolves on Tuesday

The Rockets will look to snap their four-game losing streak on Tuesday as they host Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. Minnesota is Houston's third straight sub-.500 opponent, and Towns' team has struggled mightily throughout 2019-20. The Timberwolves have lost their last two games by double digits, and they exit Sunday No. 14 in the West at 19–44. Perhaps a Western Conference bottom feeder will allow the Rockets to return to their winning ways.

Tip-off from the Toyota Center in Houston is slated for 7 p.m. CT.