Poor shooting dooms Rockets in their second straight loss

Despite their best defensive showing of the season, the Houston Rockets fell to the Utah Jazz, 100-89. After a back-and-forth affair in the first quarter, the Jazz were able to take control of the next three behind the strong play of Donovan Mitchell (38-5-7). Houston, a team that typically lives by the three, died by it in overwhelming fashion: they only connected on 11 of their 40 attempts.

The Rockets have dropped two straight, and now sit 12th the West with a 1-3 record. Of course, there’s no need to panic yet; all four of their opponents have been surefire playoff teams (New Orleans, Utah) or strong hopefuls (both Los Angeles teams). A short-handed Houston team losing to the Jazz is nothing to be depressed about.


1. James Harden had to do too much

Harden was mostly great last night. He led the team in points (29) and assists (7), and had the best plus-minus (minus-5) among the starters.

Harden did his usual damage in two-man situations, whether it be pick-and-rolls or dribble-handoffs. He was able to get downhill when his defender fell behind the screen, creating 2-on-1s against Utah’s “drop” scheme. If the big didn’t step up, Harden got buckets at the basket:

If the big did step up, well, you can kinda guess what happened:

Even when the defense was there, it didn’t matter at times:

That is fantastic defense by Dante Exum. He fights over the screen, stays connected on the drive, then contests with his inside hand right as Harden gathers for the shot. It just didn’t matter.

Harden had an efficient night scoring the ball, knocking down 10 of his 19 shots (52.6 percent), including a 3-of-4 clip from three. Considering he only shot 4-of-8 at the rim, he honestly left some points at the table.

But asking one man to create so many shots for himself (and others) against an elite defense is a bit much, even for someone as skilled as Harden. For the second straight game, Harden averaged over six seconds per touch, and had the ball for nearly ten minutes total, per tracking data at NBA.com. It should come as no surprise, then, that Harden finished with a game-high seven turnovers.

With no Chris Paul, the onus was going to fall on Harden to do more. He’s clearly up for the challenge, but some help would’ve been nice. His backcourt running mates gave him next to no support. Eric Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams combined for 18 points on 8-of-28 shooting from the floor.

You have to tip your cap to Utah for keeping them under control, but that’s just unacceptable. Those two have to give more; depending on the severity of Harden’s hamstring tightness, they may not have a choice.

2. Carmelo Anthony regained his stroke

Entering Wednesday night’s contest, Carmelo Anthony was in a bit of a slump. His scoring breakdown, by game:

  • 9 points on 3-of-10 shooting from the field, 1-of-5 shooting from three against the Pelicans
  • 7 points on 3-of-10 shooting from the field, 1-of-7 shooting from three against the Lakers
  • 9 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field, 1-of-3 shooting from three against the Clippers

A 3-of-15 clip obviously isn’t ideal. The fact that ten of those looks were either open (defender 4-6 feet away) or wide open (defender 6+ feet away) makes that number look disgusting.

Melo was able to rebound on Wednesday night, scoring a season-high 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting. He made three of his eight triples, a welcomed sign on a night where nobody else outside of Harden could hit from deep.

3. Michael Carter-Williams continued to struggle

MCW has said all of the right things. He put in legitimate work over the summer. He plays incredibly hard, and in a vacuum, you don’t want to overreact to a four-game sample.

But good lord, man, this just can’t happen:

This is just blatant disrespect by the Jazz. They trapped Harden with no ball screen present, simply to force the ball out of his hands. Jae Crowder helps from one pass away, typically something you never want to see as a defense. But Crowder felt he could because, in his eyes, Carter-Williams posed virtually no threat to making him pay for the rotation.

He was right.

Through four games, Carter-Williams is shooting 2-of-7 from three. All but one of those looks have come from the corner. It just doesn’t get any easier than that, but he’s been unable to nail those looks.

He’s been mostly “fine” on the perimeter defensively, but it’s quite clear he can’t hold his own against beefier wings after switches. If he can’t guard more than two positions, and he can’t hit open shots, there’s no real reason for him to be out there once Paul returns.


1. At what point does Eric Gordon show up?

Carmelo Anthony is an easy target to pick on, both figuratively and literally. But he isn’t the only Rocket that has struggled so far. Eric Gordon has been pretty hit-or-miss this year. Wednesday’s contest against the Jazz was a definite miss; he scored 11 points on 5-of-21 shooting. He missed 11 of the 12 threes he attempted.

Gordon is shooting 30.8 percent on 17.3 field goal attempts over his last three games. Slumps happen, and he has been asked to shoulder more of a load with Paul’s suspension, but the Rockets need him to break out of it.


2. When will Gary Clark get a real shot?

Paul is out with a suspension. James Ennis is out with a hamstring issue of his own. Gordon is struggling to shoot. Carter-Williams is struggling, period. Why on earth did Gary Clark, who played well during Summer League play and preseason (insert grains of salt here), only play two minutes against the Jazz? Why has he only played seven minutes this season?

For a team like Houston that needs contributions on the fringes, Clark not even getting a cursory look isn’t coaching malpractice, but it’s pretty close.

(Okay, maybe that’s a little strong.)

On a serious note, Clark plays with an energy that Houston needs. There’s legitimate 3-and-D potential there. At the very least, he can’t be much worse than Carter-Williams. Give the young man some burn and let him learn on the fly.


1. Carmelo Anthony gets the start on Friday

If Harden does miss Friday’s contest against the Clippers, the Rockets are going to need a scorer in the starting lineup. Anthony certainly fits the bill, even if he can’t carry a team on a full-time basis anymroe. According to The Athletic’s Kelly Iko, head coach Mike D’Antoni may be considering a lineup change:

Honestly, it makes sense. Anthony’s biggest flaw is an inability to defend, well, lots of players. But with the Clippers starting Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris at the forward spots, he won’t be at a serious physical disadvantage. It still isn’t ideal, but I do think Anthony will get the starting nod.

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