LOS ANGELES — Over the course of the season, the Rockets have the fifth best defense in the NBA, allowing opponents to shoot 44.3 percent and score 99.6 points per 100 possession.
But that defense has gone AWOL of late — in the Rockets last five games they had allowed their opponents to shoot 48.2 percent and score 107.4 points per 100 possessions, both 25th in the NBA during that stretch. The Rockets went 3-2 in those games, but the defensive struggles were a bad omen.
“We went through a period where we had a lot of break downs defensively,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “But our guys worked on it, we had good, hard practices, and one thing that’s nice about this team is they get better at what you work on.”
They looked better defensively against the Lakers Sunday — they held Los Angeles to 15 points in the first quarter, and 36 in the first half as the Rockets cruised to a 99-87 win that was never really in doubt from early on. Los Angeles shot 43 percent and had an offensive rating of 88.8 points per 100 possessions on the night. All of that without Dwight Howard in the lineup (sprained ankle).
“I thought our defense was pretty solid for the most part,” McHale said. “We made them work for stuff. And I thought that our defense had been slacking, I’d say the last few weeks. We’ve been working at it, and I thought the last few nights it’s been getting better.”
The obvious answer for why it looked better Sunday is that the Lakers — especially now without Kobe Bryant — are an unfocused disaster on offense. They lack quality shot creators or anyone you have to fear.
Of course, the Rockets saw it as something more than that, as a springboard for themselves to get back to their identity. And when you asked any Rockets’ player about the improved defense they used some variant of the word “focus,” adding they had to do it more consistently.
“It’s definitely getting there,” James Harden said of the defense. “I think we’re locking in a little bit more. We still have a long way to go, but we’re definitely on the right path…
“It’s focus. We are more than capable of being the best team in the league, but we have to focus on defense every single night.”
What the Rockets focus on well is to contest three pointers, teams are shooting just 31.3 percent from beyond the arc on Houston this season, second best in the Association. The Lakers were 1-of-13 from three in the game.
That was one of the points of emphasis this season from assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the rising assistant coach who is the coach in charge of the defense and who helped turn that ship around — something especially impressive because this team lost quality defenders in Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons over the summer, then have been without Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley for extended periods this season.
“Concentration more than anything else,” McHale said of why the defense improved Sunday night on the road. “It just seemed (in previous games) like we were not up, we didn’t stay in our coverages, and we had a lot of small mistakes. Whenever you have a lot of small mistakes, a lot of them are mental mistakes. I’m not sure what causes it. I don’t think it was fatigue, but we didn’t play well for a while. We’re getting it back.”
Sometimes when things aren’t working you need an easy one just to get your confidence back and get back in a rhythm. The Rockets got that with the Lakers Sunday. But the reprieve is short lived because next up on Wednesday is a real test: Dallas. The Mavericks are the second best offense in the NBA this season. After that comes games against the scrappy Celtics and Pistons.
Every team has lapses and slip ups over the marathon of 82 games. They key is to not let that linger and develop into bad habits. The problem needs to be rectified quickly.
We’ll see soon if the Rockets have ended their defensive slump, or if they have a lot more work to do.