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Game Day: Rockets Vs. Suns

Analysis and observations from Houston's 97-88 loss to the Phoenix Suns

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s Wednesday night matchup with the Phoenix Suns:

POST-GAME

So it would appear as if the Rockets really do miss Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin (not to mention Omer Asik and Greg Smith) after all. And while we’re leading with obvious statements, we might as well point out that apparently shooting 9-of-31 from beyond the arc and turning the ball over 23 times isn’t exactly a winning combination while playing shorthanded (or any-handed, for that matter), either.

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None of the above will provide much in the way of solace – nor is it meant to, by the way – but its validity was certainly hammered home in the most emphatic way possible during Houston’s 97-88 loss to the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night at Toyota Center. The Rockets never found any sustained sense of rhythm and, much like their Monday loss to Utah, seemed to be fighting uphill the entire night. They fell behind early, rallied multiple times late, and every single time the Suns had an answer in response.

Full credit to Phoenix for a strong, resilient effort throughout, but this game is not going to find itself in the shrine as a representation of the kind of basketball the Rockets ultimately hope comes to define them this season. Outside of a dominating performance on the offensive boards, Houston looked listless, out of sync and like a team desperately missing the pace and playmaking skills of Parsons and Lin for large portions of the evening.

Dwight Howard was a destructive presence in the paint, claiming eight of his game-high 18 rebounds on the offensive end. Aaron Brooks once again provided a big boost off the bench by pouring in a team-leading 17 points. Omri Casspi and Patrick Beverley delivered solid production as well. Unfortunately for the Rockets, there was little else to brag about.

Phoenix turned Houston's multitude of turnovers into 25 points. They scored 26 more via the fast break (the Suns entered the game No. 1 in the NBA in fast break points, averaging nearly 20 per game). But perhaps most jarring: the fact Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker racked up 18 points while playing a huge role in holding James Harden to a 3-of-17 shooting performance. The Suns have defended the 3-point line almost as well as anyone up to this point in the season, so seeing Houston misfire from deep wasn't a total shock; watching Harden struggle to find a groove, however, most certainly was since tonight’s opponent figured to be right in his wheelhouse given Phoenix’s propensity for fouling and lack of rim protection. But he never did get on track, finishing 0-10 from beyond the arc while turning the ball over five times.

Desperate for anything to shake free of the malaise that plagued them in the first half, the Rockets went small to start the second with a Brooks-Beverley backcourt, alongside Harden, Omri Casspi and Howard. And it worked – at least for a while. Houston climbed to within two points of Phoenix at one point, only to see the Suns sprint ahead once more with a strong finishing kick at the end of the period. That pattern repeated itself again in the final frame as well. After a Brooks triple trimmed the Rockets’ deficit to a single point, Phoenix put together a 13-0 run to slam the door shut on Houston’s hopes.

The Rockets controlled the offensive glass all night – they finished with a whopping 21 offensive boards – but the turnovers and missed 3s piled up even more quickly, leaving a thoroughly disappointed and somber post-game locker room in its wake.

"We can't give away games like this," lamented Howard. It will come back and bite us later on in the season. We have to learn how, no matter how many guys we have out there, shorthanded and all, we've got to play the same way, play hard and play aggressive.

"It just has to be in you. You can't coach it. You can't draw up plays or anything like that. You've just got to have it.

"Our execution was terrible ... We have to learn how to play when we're down, we've got to learn how to play when we've got big leads -- it's something we've got to learn how to do. We've got to get a good shot every time. Coming down and shooting quick shots is not always good, especially when we're down.

"It happens. I told you guys a couple weeks ago: the season is up and down. You go on runs, you lose a couple games, but the biggest thing is coming back the next game with a better effort. And if not, then we have to take another 'L' for us to learn."

NOTES AND QUOTES

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On team's play) “In the first quarter, Phoenix came up and got real aggressive with us and were denying us around the court. We didn't handle that very well then you compound that with shots not going. We had no flow tonight. That's two games in a row that we had no flow. We didn't have any flow in that Utah game either. I just thought the 13 assists, 23 turnovers, some really errant passing...we gave up 25 points off our turnovers so we just fed them. They were turning it over and throwing it back at us but we didn't score off of them at the rate that they did. We just didn't play very well.”

(On the team's play without Chandler Parsons) “Well, you still have to play. I don't care who's not there, you just gotta go play and we didn't play the right way. We didn't move the ball. We didn't move our bodies. They got up on us and started denying passes. We didn't go back door. We didn't drive all the different scenes. When we did drive, we took wild shots. We didn't drive in there and move the ball for each other. We did not play very good and that's the bottom line. We turned the ball over at an unbelievable rate. Half of them, off the top of my head, were just bad decisions. Just sloppy with the ball.”

(On James Harden's injury affecting his play) “I think James is fine. He had a big night three games in a row. Against San Antonio, he played very well. He wasn't the only one. We had a lot of guys out there that couldn't bust loose. We couldn't get the offense turned over. We were going side to side with the ball, way too much dribbling and not enough ball movement, not enough body movement. That's two bad games in a row.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On what went wrong tonight) “Just didn’t have enough energy. We didn’t make shots on the offensive end or move the basketball and they did.”

(On Phoenix scoring off of the Rockets turnovers) “Definitely. They lead the league in fast break points so we were just handing them the ball and they were scoring off of our turnovers.”

(On if there was a lack of Rockets team defense) “Yeah definitely. On team defense and offensively we were stagnant. We didn’t get the ball moving and weren’t jumping like we’re used to. It’s a tough night for us.”

(On if it’s a routine as a tough loss) “Yeah definitely. We have 82 games, so it’s going to happen. We’re going to miss some shots. We have a game Friday at home, so (that will be a) bounce back game. “

(On if guys being hurt play a role in his reduction) “Yeah it’s tough, it’s tough. Other guys have to step up and make plays and fit our system. Like I said, it’s a tough night for us, but Friday we got another one.

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On what went wrong offensively for the Rockets) “It had nothing to do with us missing shots. They (Suns) just played harder than us. Just play hard.”

(On the loss) “We can't give away games like this. It will come back and bite us in games later in the season. We've got to learn how, no matter how many guys we have out there, short handed and all, we've got to play the same way, play hard and play aggressive.”

(On the Suns 13-0 scoring run in the second half after the Rockets cut the lead to 1 point) “Our execution was terrible.”

AARON BROOKS

(On the Rockets problems offensively) “We've got to cut. We've got to get open. We've got to use our screens. With that said, defensively we have to do better. They (Suns) got out in transition and ran. That's what they are good at. It was another bad game, bad game shooting. We missed a lot of open shots. Everybody did. We just had a bad game.”

(On the Suns scoring run to open up their 2nd half lead) “They (Suns) had confidence. They came in here and set the tone at the beginning of the game. When we fought back and used our energy to fight back, they went on another run. When you let teams do that and get in rhythm that happens.”

OMRI CASSPI

(On the Rockets offense breaking down) “There are a lot of things. We missed a few good looks. They (Suns) pressured us and they kind of denied us and they kind of got us out of how we play offensively. We need to learn from it. San Antonio did it in the second half when we played there. It's something we need to learn from.”

(On whether the Rockets got the shots they wanted after the halftime lineup adjustment) “We had a few good runs but we couldn't get stops down the stretch. We didn't score as we usually do. They made runs. We had a lot of turnovers so that's the game.”

PHOENIX SUNS COACH JEFF HORNACEK

(On PJ Tucker defending James Harden) “He played great. Obviously, it’s a great challenge for him defending Harden. James is able to get by a lot of guys and he was really focused in and he got by him a couple of times, but for the most part he made him work for everything. Then, he translated it to the offensive end and started making baskets. He was aggressive on the offensive boards, he played a great game.”

(On the Suns game plan to stop James Harden) “We usually put PJ on the best [player on the other team. That’s what PJ does, he loves defense. He loves getting after guys and he takes pride in it. He’s really made a mark in this league by doing that. For the most part, we didn’t let guys drive by us and that’s been a little concern for us lately and our guys did a good job in fighting over screens, when they did get by and our guys were there to be in the way and challenge some shots. It’s one of those things, they were missing some shots early and probably never really got it going.

(On the Suns stopping the Rockets runs) “Throughout the year, we’ve had games where we had the lead a lot in the fourth quarters and we’ve blown some. When you are a young team, that happens and you want to see the progress where it doesn’t happen as often. They cut it down and we could’ve panicked and forced something up but we didn’t and we got good shots. A lot of times when we are losing leads, we’re missing shots that we just made to get the lead.”

P.J. TUCKER

(On defending James Harden and his offensive game) “We knew it was going to be a tough game especially after our last lost in Memphis. We knew the way they play, the number one offense in the league that we were going to have to play defense and our main concern was definitely James Harden. He is a great scorer and I just tried to deny him the ball and make him rake tough shots and that’s what we did. My teammates were just finding me (on offense) and I had open shots and I had some offensive rebounds and put backs and I was running the floor early. Once we start moving the ball, everyone gets shots and we’re all able to score and it make it easy. Harden is one of the toughest players to guard in the league. He is so good at getting in the lane and making shots. The mindset going in was to just try and be physical with him and try and get him in different spots and make him make tough shots.”

(On defense being the key to the game) “That was definitely the key to the game. Usually teams that run and shoot three’s are the team you want to run on. So every time we got a miss, we wanted to push the ball, get up floor and get into the lane.”

GORAN DRAGIC

(On being able to stop Houston’s runs in the second half) “We know that Houston likes to push the ball and in every NBA game, every team makes a run and if you are solid on defense and you play together on offense, we were able to find the right open guy at the right time and he makes shots and that was huge. We knew that this game was very important for us after we lost our last two games and coach was emphasizing before the game that we had to get our poise back, especially we had to be more aggressive on defense and we wanted to run with the ball and I think we did that tonight.”

(On the importance of PJ Tucker’s defense) “PJ is one of the best defenders in the league. He I a team player and he is always going to bring every game 100% and he didn’t only play good defense but on offense, he was huge for us.”

ERIC BLEDSOE

(On the win) “It was a big win. Down the stretch, we took much care of the ball than we normally do, so from that aspect it was a good win for us.”

(On PJ Tucker’s defense setting the tone) “He’s the glue to our defense because he takes the challenge of guarding the teams’ best player on the court and he tries to lock them down when it’s hard to. A player like James, who can shoot almost any kind of shot he wants, but Tuck did a great job of fighting him and making it hard on him.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sellout crowd of 18,151, marking an 11th straight sellout at Toyota Center.

The Rockets dropped a 97-88 decision to the Suns tonight, ending Houston’s six-game home winning streak (11/11/13-11/29/13).

Houston shot a season-low .352 (31-88 FG, 9-31 3FG) from the field tonight, which included a season-low half .298 (14-47 FG, 2-13 3FG) over the opening two quarters. The Rockets came into this contest going a combined 361-of-702 (.514) from the field over their prior nine games (11/16/13-12/2/13).

The Rockets outrebounded the Suns by a 54-40 (+14) count tonight. It was the first time the Rockets took the battle of the boards by 14 or more and lost since 2011-12 (+14, 52-38 in 101-99 OT loss on 3/24/12 vs. Dallas).

Houston fell behind 4-2 at the 10:50 mark of the first quarter tonight. The Rockets, who had gone five consecutive home games without giving up the lead (11/16/13-11/27/13), trailed for the first time at Toyota Center since the 3:59 mark (-1, 87-88) of the first OT vs. Toronto (11/11/13).

The Suns, who entered tonight’s game as the NBA leader in fast-break points (19.7 ppg), took a 17-6 edge off the break in the first half alone. Phoenix ended the night with a 26-14 advantage in fast-break points.

Aaron Brooks led five Rockets in double-figure scoring tonight with 17 points (7-18 FG, 3-5 3FG), adding team bests of six assists and three steals. Over the last four home game, Brooks has scored 78 points (19.5 ppg) on 29-of-52 (.558) from the field and 16-of-23 (.696) from beyond the arc.

Dwight Howard finished with 15 points (4-11 FG, 7-9 FT) and 18 rebounds tonight. Howard, who now has 11 double-doubles already this season, pulled down a Rockets individual season-high eight offensive boards in this game.

Omri Casspi had 14 points (6-13 FG, 2-3 3FG) and seven rebounds tonight, giving him two consecutive double-digit scoring games for the first time this season. He had 13 points (5-8 FG) and six boards at Utah (12/2/13).

Eric Bledsoe netted game highs of 20 points (7-14 FG, 3-4 3FG) and seven assists tonight. Bledsoe has now scored 20-plus points in a game six times this season.

Goran Dragic, who posted 21 points (7-17 FG), 14 assists and three thefts in the last meeting with the Rockets at Phoenix (4/15/13), recorded another 19 points (6-11 FG) and four thefts tonight.

P.J. Tucker had 18 points (8-13 FG, 2-2 3FG), six rebounds, four assists and four steals, helping the Suns match the most steals against the Rockets this season with 13 tonight (13 on 11/23/13 by Minnesota).

Miles Plumlee finished with a team-high nine rebounds and two blocks tonight. Plumlee had more blocks than the entire Rockets team, who recorded a season-low one block tonight.

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Phoenix Suns (9-9) at Houston Rockets (13-6)

Point Differential:

Phoenix: +.8 (NBA rank: 13th)

Houston: +6.1 (NBA rank: 4th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Phoenix: 104.6 (9th)

Houston: 109.5 (1st)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Phoenix: 103.3 (20th)

Houston: 101.6 (11th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Phoenix: 96.30 (14th)

Houston: 98.87 (5th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Phoenix: 51.9% (6th)

Houston: 55.4% (2nd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Phoenix: 16.3 (18th)

Houston: 18.1 (30th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Phoenix: 51.9% (19th); offensive rebound rate: 25.3% (17th); defensive rebound rate: 72.7% (27th)

Houston: 53.4% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 27.7% (8th); defensive rebound rate: 73.4% (24th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Phoenix: .272 (17th)

Houston: .417 (1st)

After kicking off the 2013-14 campaign with a strong start that caught the NBA world by surprise, the Suns have cooled off of late having dropped their last two games, including a loss last night to a Memphis team missing both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. But something tells me the Rockets won’t be in the mood to underestimate or overlook any opponent anytime soon. Good thing, too, because this Suns squad has already handed Western Conference leading Portland two of its three losses on the young season, and also given top teams like San Antonio and Oklahoma City all they can handle in their home gyms as well. Phoenix boasts several players who are performing at career-best levels right now and this team takes, and is plenty capable of making, a ton of 3s – a key ingredient within the recipe for cooking up an upset; something Houston knows all too well after watching Utah’s stunning perimeter shooting display Monday night. 

Know Thy Enemy

- Speaking of the 3-ball, keep any eye on this early season trend tonight: The Suns allow the fourth fewest 3s per game of any team in the NBA and have also limited opponents to the fourth lowest hit rate from beyond the arc as well. They’ve been especially stingy with regard to the precious corner trey, as Phoenix foes have connected on just 32.5 percent of their attempts from that neighborhood; a rate that is well below league average and, in fact, stands second in that category just behind the defensive juggernaut that is the Indiana Pacers. That would suggest the Suns are committed to staying home and sticking to perimeter shooters; something that should open up driving lanes for Houston’s forays into the paint. Furthermore, Phoenix concedes the third most shots per game in the restricted area, fouls often and doesn’t have much in the way of rim protection save for the presence of Miles Plumlee – all things that should be music to James Harden’s ears.

- On the other end of the floor, beware the pairing of Goran Dragic and Channing Frye. Rockets fans likely need no reminder of Dragic’s abilities; he’s terrific in transition, destructive via the pick-and-roll and has been nothing short of essential to the Suns’ offensive attack this season. When he’s on the floor, Phoenix is scoring at a rate that would lead the entire league (111 points per 100 possessions). When he sits, the Suns’ offense dims to a dismal bottom-five outfit.

And Dragic’s potency becomes even more powerful when he’s sharing the floor with Frye. During the 335 minutes they’ve been on the court together this season, the Suns have posted a scorching offensive rating of 113.8. It’s no secret as to why: Theirs is a heavenly pick-and-pop partnership borne of Dragic’s ability to break down a defense and Frye’s remarkable marksmanship that’s allowed him to knock down better than 43 percent of his above-the-break 3s so far this year.

Channing Frye 2013-14 shot chart:

All that green you see above the arc of Frye’s shot chart: More than two-thirds of those 3-point makes have come via Dragic assists. This tandem demands constant vigilance.

- One can’t discuss the Suns without mentioning the dynamic Eric Bledsoe. Phoenix’s fourth-year guard is putting up big numbers and leading the team in PER which is why it’s so surprising to see that his club has actually performed better with him off the court rather than on it to date. The Suns’ net rating is -5.8 when Bledsoe is on the floor and +7.3 when he sits so far – a rather profound difference that figures to even out as the sample size increases, yet one that is still something worth monitoring in the meantime. Even when Bledsoe is paired with Dragic, the numbers have been more blah than boffo: Phoenix’s net rating is -4.4 during the 176 minutes its starting backcourt has logged together this season.

On the positive side of the ledger, Bledsoe is just outside the league’s top-10 in terms of the points his team derives from his drives to the basket (Dragic ranks third in that category, by the way), so let there be no doubt: He and Gogi are the motor that powers the Suns’ drive-and-kick game, with players like P.J. Tucker, Frye, Gerald Green and the Morris twins serving as the grateful beneficiaries. 

In the spotlight

A week ago Aaron Brooks expressed just how happy he is to be back in Houston this season, and why not? The home cooking obviously is working wonders with his shooting stroke. Over the course of the Rockets’ last three home games, Brooks is averaging more than 20 points, five assists and two steals while shooting better than 64 percent from the field and a mindboggling 72 percent from beyond the arc.

The entire team, in fact, has been shooting the Toyota Center lights out of late. During Houston’s last five games, the Rockets have hit more than 50 percent of their 3-point attempts while averaging 13.6 made triples per contest.

Injury update

The Rockets announced today that center Omer Asik will miss tonight’s game with a right thigh contusion that has lingered and bothered him for a while. Asik will be out a week and then re-evaluated at that time.

His absence further depletes the number of Houston’s available, healthy bodies. Chandler Parsons went through shootaround this morning, but is still feeling tightness in his back from the recurring back spasms that have plagued him for the better part of a month now. He’ll be a game-time decision, meaning, if he can’t go, the Rockets would only be dressing nine players for tonight’s game since Jeremy Lin and Greg Smith are still sidelined with injuries of their own.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.