Rockets Defense Falters Against Lakers as Houston Loses Third Straight

Michael Shapiro

The Rockets responded well to Russell Westbrook's call for increased defensive effort in the first half against the Lakers on Saturday night, entering the locker room at the Toyota Center in Houston with a 65-62 lead. Center Clint Capela defended the rim with aplomb, and the Rockets were stout in transition. The wheels came off in the final two quarters. 

Los Angeles outscored the Rockets by 15 in the third quarter en route to a 124-115 Lakers' victory, feasting near the tin as Houston's defensive effort waned. The Rockets got beat 24-4 in second chance points on Saturday. Los Angeles tallied 11 dunks and layups in the final 24 minutes. The effort Westbrook urged for was absent in the second half. 

"We didn't [play hard] for 48 minutes, obviously," Westbrook said following Saturday's loss. "It was ok to start the game, second half, they ran in front."

Saturday marked the Rockets' third straight loss and their fourth loss in the last five games. They've allowed 120.7 points per game dating back to their loss in Memphis on Jan. 14. Houston's defensive issues could largely be traced to lapses in effort against Memphis and Portland. Saturday's loss to the Lakers revealed another troubling concern: personnel shortcomings. 

The Rockets are light on the wing, and they trotted out bodies more apt for 2015 than 2020 against Los Angeles. 37-year-old Tyson Chandler logged ten minutes at backup center in place of second-year big Isaiah Hartenstein, and Thabo Sefolosha played for just the third time in Houston's last 12 games. General manager Daryl Morey is all-but-certain to hunt for upgrades before the trade deadline on Feb. 6. 

The Rockets spoiled a dominant Westbrook performance on Saturday–35 points, nine rebounds, seven assists–with their supporting cast holding a lion's share of the blame. The Lakers aggressively double-teamed James Harden, consistently smothering the two-time scoring champion as soon as he crossed half court. The scheme allowed Westbrook to earn a slate of open drives to the tin, and the Rockets' role players were often left open behind the three-point line.  They couldn't convert from beyond the arc. 

P.J. Tucker finished Saturday night 2-8 from the field. Danuel House Jr. went 3-9. Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore both added a trio of threes, but they combined to shoot 8-22 from the field. Houston couldn't take advantage of its numerous open looks, failing to close the gap as Los Angeles ran roughshod over its defense. A 12-37 mark from three won't suffice against the best in the West.

"We're getting open shots," Harden said postgame. "We got a lot of really good shooters that work on their shot. They got to be confident."

The Rockets slid to sixth in the Western Conference at 26–15 following Saturday's loss, slated to start the playoffs on the road for the first time since 2016. Their schedule doesn't get any easier before the All-Star break. Houston faces the Nuggets and Jazz twice before Feb. 12, and it will also battle the Lakers, Mavericks and Celtics. The Western Conference is a gauntlet this season, and the soft portion of the Rockets schedule is in the rearview mirror. Harden and Co. won't be able to hit cruise control anytime soon.

Houston's upcoming schedule is difficult, but don't expect anyone to hit the panic button. The Rockets won 53 games last year despite an 11–14 start. They have not one, but two former MVPs, one who is on pace to post the highest single-season scoring average since Wilt Chamberlain. Depth issues be damned, Houston's top-end talent will certainly propel them to the postseason for the eighth straight season. The Rockets remained confident postgame, but their message was clear: Increased effort is the only way out of this current slide. 

"There’s no magic potion," head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "We have to put our head down and just play. We got to have the same intensity, try to get it for 48 [minutes] on Wednesday and go from there.”

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