This season the Eastern Conference has been deeper and a little better than the West — and that was on display Monday night when the Bulls beat the Spurs, and the Hawks beat the Thunder. Two wins showing the East is for real. Pistons fans told me on Twitter they should be in the Monday night big win mix also, and while I like Detroit (check out our discussion of them in the latest PBT podcast) beating Houston is no longer impressive. Our man Dan Feldman was at that game in Detroit and wrote this first takeaway from that game — what is wrong with Houston’s energy level?
1) Why have the Rockets so often lacked energy this season? “Talking about it is not going to do nothing,” Dwight Howard said. “There’s no Xs and Os that we can draw up. Talking about it in meetings is not going to do nothing. We’ve just got to go do it. We haven’t so far, and something has to change.”
“That’s a good question,” James Harden said in his entire answer, effectively ending the interview after a 116-105 loss to the Pistons dropped Houston to 7-11.
For what Howard provides in vague frustration and Harden in mystery, Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he has uncovered what ails his team.
Bickerstaff pinned much of Houston’s defensive regression on its offensive finishing. As he explained, when the Rockets get all the way to the rim and miss, it’s too easy for opponents — with a Houston player under the basket and a loose ball getting kicked out — to run for easy shots.
The Rockets are attempting 39.2% of their shots in the restricted area, up from 34.7% last season. But they’re shooting just 58.6% there, down from 60.4% last season. Those extra misses at the rim have added up. But Bickerstaff believes his team will regress up to the mean.
“We play a certain style of basketball that we believe works,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s worked for us in the past. We’ll continue to play that way. We’ll continue to be aggressive getting to the paint, getting to the rim. We’ve just got to be stronger in our finishes, and things will change for us.”
2) Bulls execute better than Spurs down stretch (you read that right), pick up big win. With two of the top six defenses in the Association coming into the game, you had to expect San Antonio/Chicago was going to be ugly, gritty, and come down to execution in the clutch. Let’s be honest, that sounds like a recipe for a Spurs win. But on Monday night all those things went the Bulls way — Chicago didn’t score a field goal the final six minutes of the game and still won 92-89. The pairing of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic played better defense than we’d expect, and the Bulls as a team kept the Spurs from looking Spursian — San Antonio was 2-of-14 from three and seemed to rely more on beating guys one-on-one (specifically Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) than most games. The Bulls offense late is too much Derrick Rose and he can’t carry a team like he once did (although Butler couldn’t do much do to Leonard’s defense). But it was enough for one night — this was a huge home win for the Bulls.
I have been hesitant to buy into Chicago this season as the potential second best team in the East, they look like the same old Bulls to me. However, the bottom line now is they are 10-5 and have beaten the Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers and Pacers. That has to get you into one of the top tiers.
3) Atlanta’s team ball beats Westbrook/Durant Thunder for a day. It’s not as simple and clean as that headline makes it sound, but this game had that feel. The Hawks looked like Spurs northeast on Monday night, with ball movement that had them shooting 57 percent in the first quarter and opening up a double-digit lead. Then as happened all game one of the Thunder stars would spark a run — sometimes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook other times — and the game would be tight again. It went back and forth like that all night. It was Westbrook who had the fourth quarter push (17 of his 34 in the final frame) to make things interesting, but Jeff Teague finishing in traffic late (he ended the night with 25) and Kent Bazemore making the defensive play of the night was enough. Big win for the Hawks.
4) Stephen Curry game winner keeps Warriors perfect. The Utah Jazz play big, their success is based around a front line of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (two bigs who are quick), and they were not going to go small and try to match up with the Warriors. Good for them. The Jazz were going to be the Jazz and go down swinging, and Favors had 23 and Gordon Hayward had 23. And it was not enough. Draymond Green was Mr. Energy. And when the game was on the line late, Curry could create the sliver of space he needs to knock down the game winner to make Golden State 19-0.
5) DeMarcus Cousins is back, drops 31 on Dallas and Sacramento gets the win. The Sacramento Kings with DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup are 6-5 on the season and a dangerous team. It’s the 1-7 without him that holds them back. Cousins had 16 fourth quarter points (31 points, nine rebounds and six assists on the night), and that combined with some impressive defense down the stretch got the Kings a much-needed win. That defense late has to be the most heartening thing for Kings fans — they have been bad on that end of the floor. A little Cousins and a little defense and suddenly things look much better in Sacramento. Now they just have to do it consistently. And keep Cousins healthy.