The Houston Rockets lost 108-99 to the Los Angeles Lakers last night in a game that felt all too familiar. The Rockets had no defensive answer for superstar Kobe Bryant, no reliable scorer of its own down the stretch, and got absolutely killed in the paint by a taller, more athletic post player (in this case, Andrew Bynum, who finished with 21 points and 22 rebounds).
Of course, Houston kept it close as always thanks to a three-point barrage from Kyle Lowry, leaving the fans in their seats just a bit longer to sweat out the result. It’s a painful “close but yet so far” scenario for Rockets fans that they know all too well. The Rockets have a bevy of good players who try so terribly hard, but they lack that one transcendent superstar to push them over the edge. So, after splitting the final two games of 2011 versus Memphis and Atlanta, Houston opened 2012 with a loss and the same old issues. Here are five suggestions for improvement:
1) Kyle Lowry needs to hoist earlier, and more often. The All-Star candidate continues to flirt with a nightly triple-double, this time with 22 points, 9 assists, and 10 rebounds. However, many of those points came when the game was virtually decided after L.A. had secured the largest lead of the night at 10 points late in the fourth quarter. Lowry began chucking long-range jumpers, draining three treys after that double-digit deficit. Though his shooting percentages are below average, Lowry takes a number of difficult shots and often chooses to pass up good attempts for wide-open chances for his teammates. He’s an unselfish player who will always look for the assist primarily, and he is playing at an unbelievably high level right now.
But he can play even better, and that involves cranking up the bravado in his shot. Lowry has deep range and a pretty consistent jumper, he just needs to show confidence in unleashing it more often, and not waiting until the game is already in hand before he starts firing from three in reckless desperation. He needs to adopt the attitude that his team needs him to make those trifectas early in the game, and not to wait until everything is falling apart at the seams. If Lowry is making long threes in addition to his punishing drives, he will be one of the most unstoppable points in the league.
2) Terrence Williams needs to be this team’s defensive stopper. It was obvious tonight, as the Black Mamba scored wherever and whenever he wanted down the stretch on his way to 37 points, that Houston had nobody even close to challenging him. Chase Budinger did a solid job because of his length, but he lacks lateral quickness, and Kevin Martin is just too small and feeble. Without Shane Battier, who has filled that role of defensive stopper for Houston in recent years, the Rockets have shown difficulty in determining a new name to step up and fulfill Battier’s former duty.
I think the player with the best chance to be that guy is Williams. Williams is the best athlete on the team and he has the chiseled strength to muscle up with his foes as well. His combination of speed, athleticism, and power allow him to physically hang with the best scorers in the NBA. Martin and Budinger cannot. It’s all a matter of effort for him since the tools are there. Kevin McHale needs to give it a try and free T-Will to hound future opponents.
3) Trade Kevin Martin, start Courtney Lee. Martin just isn’t getting it done consistently in the role of Houston’s top scorer. He relies almost exclusively on his jumper, and it’s ugly when the ball isn’t going in the hoop. Tonight was one of those nights, as Martin went 1-8 from three point range and air-balled at least two of the attempts in the closing minutes, when Houston was desperate for points. And when Martin isn’t shooting well, he isn’t scoring in other ways, and when he isn’t scoring he sure isn’t defending. Martin is an awful defender without the size or seeming effort to lock down his man on the other end. His slight frame makes him an easy target for post-ups from bigger players.
Houston can afford to trade Martin because of Lee’s stellar play. Lee scored nine points before straining his right calf muscle, and contributed the play of the night with a gravity defying tip dunk. Lee is an incredible athlete who can score through penetration or the open three, but the best part is that he has the quickness, frame, and wherewithal to defend at a level much higher than Martin. He is an upgrade athletically and defensively, and has a more well-rounded offensive game. The Rockets are in desperate need of another athletic scoring option at the small forward position while Marcus Morris develops in the D-League. Trading Martin would be a perfect way to acquire one and continue rebuilding around the one untouchable player on this roster — Lowry.
4) No more Luis Scola guarding opposing centers. The Lakers have more length than anyone in the NBA and provide a fair share of mismatches with the 14-foot starting duo of Pau Gasol and Bynum. But there is still no reason who Scola should be guarding Bynum, as he did often in the final, crucial minutes last night. Bynum is so long he can shoot down on the basket easily over Scola’s head. Luis is a fine player who is able to scrap with the best of them — he scored 20 points tonight on over 50 percent shooting — but defending athletic players his own height is not his strong suit, let alone locking down 7-footers.
Houston should have experimented more with the lineup of Jordan Hill and Samuel Dalembert, and look at doing so more in future games. Hill (6 ft. 10) has raw talent and a good work ethic but is still developing, while Dalembert (6 ft. 11) is going to provide a shot-blocking presence. Put both of those guys in the game at once, and opposing teams will have problems. Houston would miss Scola’s consistent scoring, especially out around 15 feet, but against teams with size like L.A.’s (thankfully there aren’t many), the Rockets can’t afford to be giving up easy lay-ups or short hooks because they are playing a 6 ft. 7 defensive center.
5) Find that superstar. Is this even worth mentioning? Houston will never be able to consistently close out games against teams like the Lakers without a superstar of their own. Lowry can be the closer if he figures out how good his shot can be. Martin cannot be. He has proven that over the years. But until Houston can find their own star to match the Kobes and Kevin Durants of the NBA world, then the Rockets will always play the fleeting role of Cinderella, happy to compete with the big boys throughout the game but unable to preserve the victory once the clock strikes midnight, or, in Houston’s case, the fourth quarter. Here it is consistently proven that a whole lot of good can’t overcome a small amount of great.