The Houston Rockets were incredible last season.
Their record was 65-17, just eight away from tying the record 73-win season that the Golden State Warriors set during 2015-16. The Rockets would not only win the Southwest Division, but they would finish first in the Western Conference when everything was said and done. They would eventually lose to Golden State in the Western Conference Finals in seven games.
Their elite defense was the result of that magnificent season; however, things aren’t going exactly as planned this campaign like the last for the 32-23 Rockets — they currently sit in the No. 5 position in the West, eight games behind the Warriors for the lead.
The main reasons for the lack of peak success: Consistent injuries and team chemistry issues (this due to constant changes to the roster because of the health issues).
Houston doesn’t even have an average defense at the moment. With only a -2 points difference, they’ve allowed opposition to tally over 110 points consistently at 111.0 PA — if you don’t know, that’s below average in the league. Even their opponent tonight, the Dallas Mavericks, have a better defense at 108.5 PA with a 26-29 record. In the Rockets’ defense, there has been some slight improvement, but nowhere enough to even cover James Harden and his record-setting season.
“We’ve got to be consistent for four quarters,” Harden commented to reporters after another defensive dumpster-fire against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday in a 117-112 loss. “It’s pretty simple.”
Tonight, Houston tries to continue the progression with their lackluster defense in a rivalry contest against Dallas — both teams’ next-to-last game before the All-Star break.
Against Oklahoma City, the inconsistency was real. The Rockets would hold the Thunder to just 75 points combined in the first, second, and fourth quarters — great, right? They allowed OKC to put up 42 alone in the third quarter. They ruined a 26-point advantage (nearly 30 if you can’t do math) that they had over the Thunder. In case you don’t remember, they would end up losing that game.
Last season, the Houston Rockets would finish seventh in the category of defensive rating — they allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions. This season, Houston is currently sitting in the exact opposite side at 25th in the league averaging 112.0 PA. Since the new year began, Houston is sitting at a winning 11-8 record, but the expectations for them were so much higher. The defensive rating of 113.8 since that time has most likely been the main factor.
There’s a silver lining, however. And that’s the coming return of their big man Clint Capela.
“We get Clint (Capela) back (after the break) and the defense was really good in the first half,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters. “We’ve just got to continue that, and we’ll build on this.”
Capela has missed 13 games thus far due to a thumb injury, and his presence in the paint is sure to ratchet up the defensive play of Houston and balance out the numbers a bit.
For the Dallas Mavericks, they’re all in with their young ball club after their recent acquisition of Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. to go along with their rising star Luka Doncic. Doncic is currently a distant frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year.
On Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Mavs would take a one-point 102-101 win over the No. 4 team in the West — it would be Dallas’ third win in four games. And here’s the kicker: They would limit Portland to just nine points in the fourth quarter, superior defense unlike their rival Houston.
Doncic would nearly have a double-double in that contest with a stat line of 28 points, nine rebounds, and six assists — he would show his clutch gene by tallying 13 of those points in the fourth quarter. Hardaway Jr. would add 24 points to the mix.
And here’s another positive for everything going on with the Dallas organization right now: There’s no pressure.
Back in preseason, most predictions had the Mavericks out of the playoffs. Currently, in the season, they’re just four games behind the No. 8 spot in the West. The Mavericks could either 1. Seriously chase a postseason berth and see what happens with no real expectations. Doncic alone is able to keep them in games, and now they’re on a winning stretch with the recent acquisitions. Or 2. Just let Doncic, Hardaway Jr., and the rest of the young talent do their thing and progress. (Porzingis is out until July 1.)
Dallas is sitting in a pretty situation for an up-and-coming team, which could continue to screw up things for Houston. As a matter of fact, the Mavericks would get a comeback victory in the last meeting against the Rockets — keep that in mind for tonight.
Also, take note of this: Despite the differences in each record and their spots in the standings, Dallas has taken both games against Houston for a 2-0 record in the season series.
But here’s a positive for the Rockets: The Mavericks are coming into tonight not just as a visitor to Houston, but this is the second contest in a back-to-back for them.
Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle put it into perspective perfectly.
“It’s the Western Conference,” Carlisle said to reporters. “It’s another tough set of matchups coming at you 100 miles an hour.”
Tip-off between the Dallas Mavericks (25-29) and Houston Rockets (32-23) is set for 8:00 PM ET and will be nationally televised on NBA TV. Houston is a -10.5 favorite over Dallas.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
CHECK THE NUMBERS
The Dallas Mavericks come in with three out of the four mainline statistical categories (points-per-game, points against, field goal percentage, rebounds-per-game), and they’ll need it being on the road. In offensive production, the Mavs take their only number in the red at -5 averaging 108.9 PPG; however, Dallas holds a very slim +0.2 edge in FG% hitting 44.9% of their shots. On the rebounding end, the Mavericks are +4 bringing down a solid 45.9 RPG. On defense, they’re +3 with 108.5 PA — under the 110 mark, unlike Houston.
James Harden, Chris Paul, and the rest of the Houston Rockets better be grateful that the game is at the Toyota Center because they only hold one of the four advantages — that comes on the offensive side. In points-per-game, the Rockets hold their only edge at +5 averaging out at 113.1 PPG, but they’re in the negative in FG% at -0.2 hitting 44.7% of their shots. In the battle on the glass, Houston lacks at -4 grabbing down 41.8 RPG. On the defensive side of the ball, the Rockets are at -3, eclipsing the 110 mark at 111.0 PA.
With the current winning stretch that the Dallas Mavericks are on, Clint Capela being out for Houston, and the current state of the Rockets’ defense, I’m a bit surprised at the -9.5 odds in favor of the Houston Rockets. And consider the fact that the Mavs have already won at Houston this season by a blowout 128-108 score.
Here’s an interesting fact coming into the game tonight: Even though the Mavericks are 2-0 against the Rockets this season, they were on an 0-8 losing record the previous eight meetings. This was, of course, before the Mavericks had their Rookie of the Year candidate in Luka Doncic — expect the 19-year-old to get his tonight against a dismal Houston defense. This, as a result, will start a shootout with James Harden and Chris Paul.
The way I see the game tonight, this is a difficult one to choose. Dallas has a tremendous shot of pulling an upset over the Rockets (again) in Houston, especially in a shootout scenario without Clint Capela in the paint for the Rockets. Like I mentioned earlier though, I do expect Harden and Paul to go off tonight in a rivalry contest. I can see each Harden, Paul, and Dallas’ Doncic putting up some hefty points in this one. As far as the victor, I’ll ride with Houston in a home contest — the extra motivation of not wanting to fall 0-3 in the season series against your rival is sure to give the Rockets an extra edge, but to be honest, I’m not that confident in a toss-up game. Don’t go with the horrible -9.5 spread either, tonight’s contest should be a tight one — it’s like a Christmas gift from the odds-makers taking Dallas to meet that. As far as the O/U, take the over at 220.5. Houston’s offense is too potent to contain, and their defense is too depressing to stop Doncic and the rest of the Mavericks. Enjoy a wild-wild west shootout in this one, ladies and gents.