Rockets Defensive Woes Return in Blowout Loss to Mavericks

Michael Shapiro

The Luka Doncic Show continued in full force at the Toyota Center on Sunday as the 20-year-old MVP candidate dominated the Rockets with 41 points in the Mavericks’ 137-123 win. 

Houston allowed a season-worst 78 first-half points, and the Rockets couldn’t climb back despite cutting Dallas’ lead to five points with nine minutes to play. The Rockets are now 11–6 on the season, losing three straight games for the first time in 2019-20.

Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s loss. 

Doncic-Porzingis Duo Delivers

Dallas’ young dynamic duo outperformed James Harden and Russell Westbrook on Sunday. Former Knicks’ forward Kristaps Porzingis controlled the action in the first quarter, tallying 10 points and seven rebounds (four offensive). Houston played P.J. Tucker on Porzingis and paid the price as the Mavericks paired Porzingis with 6’11” center Dwight Powell.

The Rockets trailed 45-29 after the first quarter, digging themselves a hole they couldn't crawl out of in the second half.

"We were flat, and they weren’t. And they punched us," head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame.

Porzingis was the headliner in the first quarter, but Dallas' marquee offseason acquisition ceded the stage to Doncic down the stretch. The 20-year-old phenom generated points at will against Houston, displaying his full offensive arsenal. Doncic buried five threes–four of the step-back variety–and he consistently torched James Harden on isolation possessions. Doncic scored 13 points to close out the Rockets in the fourth quarter.

"[Doncic] is big, he's strong, he's really good at seeing everybody on the floor," Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said postgame. "As good as he can shoot and play make, he does everything else really well as well."

The Doncic-Harden comparisons are apt to a degree, though the Slovenian sensation creates quality looks with a grinding, punishing power like a bull in a china shop. Doncic was the bruiser down low against Tucker, not an easy feat. He finished Sunday afternoon with 41 points and 10 assists, becoming the first player this season with multiple 40-point, 10 assist games. The MVP buzz is warranted. Dallas has a bonafide superstar as it approaches the next decade.

Westbrook's Tale of Two Halves

Russell Westbrook delivered a repeat of his disastrous Miami performance in the first quarter on Sunday, posting a minus-23 as he went 1-5 from the field in the opening 12 minutes. The struggles continued into the second quarter. Westbrook clanked three of four first-half threes, and he added a trio of turnovers. Dallas packed the paint and dared Westbrook to pull the trigger. The 2016-17 MVP failed to make the Mavericks pay.

Westbrook finished Sunday's matchup with 27 points, largely on the back of a strong end of the third and start of the fourth quarter. He pushed the ball in transition with abandon, punishing Dallas at the rim with Porzingis on the bench. Westbrook converted two layups and registered an assist in three consecutive possessions as Houston cut Dallas' lead to five. With Harden struggling from the field, Westbrook kept the Rockets afloat.

The former Thunder star should continue to hunt shots at the rim in the near future as his jumper remains broken. Westbrook is shooting 22.9% from three. He entered Sunday making just seven of 34 spot-up attempts in 2019-20. There's a version of Westbrook that's a passable shooter; he shot 32.7% from three in his final 40 games last season. But for now, any shot outside the lane is a shaky bet. Westbrook is athletic enough to drive to the tin nearly whenever he wants. His discipline as an offensive player could shape the Rockets' season. 

Rockets Falter From Three

We noted Westbrook's shooting struggles above, but no Rocket struggled from beyond the arc more than James Harden on Sunday. Harden made just two of 15 threes on the evening, starting just 1-14 from beyond the arc before before a final make in garbage time. Sunday's loss was perhaps Harden's least efficient performance of the season. 

Harden's three-point attempts on Sunday came in far different fashion than his usual slate of step-backs. A majority of his attempts came in transition or early in the shot clock in half-court sets as he pulled the trigger before drawing additional defensive attention. 

Dallas continued the Nuggets' and Clippers' defensive strategy on Sunday. The sent a second defender at Harden ad nauseam and dared his teammates to either hit open threes or make plays rolling downhill. The Rockets weren't proficient in either facet. They made just 14 of 48 threes and committed 22 turnovers. Many of Harden's teammates looked like a deer in the headlights when left open beyond the arc and near the foul line.

"We just gotta attack," Rockets guard Austin Rivers said postgame. "If they're going to double [Harden], we have to be aggressive and attack."

Up Next: vs. Miami on Wednesday

The Rockets will look to bounce back at the Toyota Center against the last team who blew them out prior to Sunday afternoon. The Heat decimated Houston on Nov. 13, sprinting out to a 32-point first quarter lead en route to a 129-100 victory. Erik Spoelstra's squad is one of the toughest defensive units in basketball, led by Jimmy Butler and emerging center Bam Adebayo. The Kentucky product is averaging 1.24 points per roll possession in 2019-20, the fifth-best rate among all players with at least 40 attempts.

Tip-off from the Toyota Center is slated for 7 p.m. ET.

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