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Report: Jeff Bzdelik coming out of retirement, returning to Rockets

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After jumping from 18th in the NBA in points allowed per possession two years ago to seventh last year, the Rockets have crashed to 21st this year.

Why?

It’s hard to overlook the surprising retirement of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, the architect of Houston’s switching scheme, shortly before training camp.

But… he’s back.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

What a chance for Bzdelik to bolster his reputation as a defensive mastermind. The Rockets look so lost on that end.

But he won’t have the same tools as last season. Mainly, Houston lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. It’ll be a bigger challenge building a defense around Carmelo Anthony, whom Bzdelik coached with the Nuggets.

The Rockets’ 3-5 start might not have directly lured back Bzdelik, but owner Tilman Fertitta surely felt the sting of losing. Fertitta’s words to Bzdelik were influenced by Houston’s results.

I wonder whether Bzdelik parlayed that into a raise.

Watch Devin Booker’s game-winner to give Suns 102-100 win against Grizzlies

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PHOENIX (AP) — Devin Booker‘s 17-foot jumper with 1.7 seconds left capped a fourth-quarter comeback by Phoenix, and the Suns snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 102-100 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night.

Booker, playing the entire fourth quarter with five fouls, scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the final period as Phoenix rallied from 12 points down.

Trevor Ariza added 16 points and nine rebounds, and rookie Mikal Bridges scored nine of his 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Shelvin Mack‘s season-high 21 points led the Grizzlies, who got one more possession after Booker’s big bucket. But Mike Conley missed a long 3-pointer at the horn.

Dillon Brooks scored a season-high 17 points for Memphis, including eight in the fourth quarter.

The leading scorers for both teams were saddled with foul trouble. Conley picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, and Booker was whistled for his fifth midway through the third quarter.

Isaiah Canaan hit a 3 that gave Phoenix a 61-56 lead in the third period, the Suns’ largest lead of the game.

The Grizzlies responded with an 18-2 run and took a 74-63 lead. The Suns went almost four minutes without a point in the quarter.

Phoenix cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 81-77 at the end of the third, thanks to Jamal Crawford‘s 33-foot heave that swished through the net.

MarShon Brooks followed his own missed free throw and gave the Grizzlies a 10-point lead, 47-37, with 4:15 left in the second quarter. The Grizzlies’ largest lead of the first half was 10 points.

Booker knocked down his first 3 after four misses with 46.5 seconds left in the second, and followed that with a lob to Deandre Ayton with 2.9 seconds. The Suns trailed 56-52 at the break.

 

Rockets “going back to drawing board” on defensive scheme after 1-4 start

Associated Press
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Last season, the Rockets’ “switch everything” defensive system had them sixth in the league in defense, and within one half of reaching the NBA Finals (and likely winning a title).

This season, the Rockets have started 1-4 after a loss Friday night at home to the Clippers, and Houston’s defense is the problem. They are allowing 9.1 more points per 100 possessions than last season, and they are really struggling to defend the pick-and-roll, allowing 113 points per 100 possessions on that play. The switching is not working, in part because Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are gone, and in part because assistant coach in charge of the defense last season Jeff Bzdelik retired.

Rockets players and coach Mike D’Antoni said after Friday’s loss it’s time for a change, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out what’s going to be the best solution for this team,” guard Chris Paul said after a 133-113 loss to the LA Clippers on Friday night….

“We’ve got to make some adjustments,” D’Antoni said. “We were switching, and obviously this team is different than last year, and they were busting us. We weren’t tied together. We’ll have two days of practice, so we’ll put some other things in and try to figure it out a little bit better. Our defense was just awful.

“We don’t have any continuity. We’re not figuring it out, and then the dam breaks and everybody struggles. But we’ve got two good days of practice. We’ll figure things out. We just dug ourselves a hole, and we’ve got to dig it out.”

Making sweeping changes midseason is difficult because NBA teams don’t practice that much. While the Rockets are off through the weekend until next Tuesday, that time should be more about rest and recovery during a long season than going over new defensive schemes.

Watch the Rockets and it’s clear their communication and recognition are just not the same as a year ago, it’s more than just a personnel issue. They look like a team that just hasn’t practiced defense that much, that isn’t focused on that end as an organization. Trading for Jimmy Butler — if that were to happen, which seems unlikely — would help the roster issue, but the focus one is something else entirely. That’s on the locker room leaders, Chris Paul and James Harden, along with Mike D’Antoni.

A lot of people expected the Rockets to take a step back this season, but it may end up being a bigger one than anticipated.

James Harden to miss at least two games with hamstring strain

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With 1:25 left in the third quarter Thursday night, in a game that was still in doubt, James Harden motioned to Mike D’Antoni on the bench and asked out. He did not return due to what was then called a tight hamstring, and the Rockets eventually fell to the Jazz, 100-89.

Harden had an MRI on Thursday and was diagnosed with a grade 1 hamstring strain, which will be re-evaluated in about a week.

What does that mean?

The Rockets are already without James Ennis, who has a Grade 2 hamstring strain. While the Rockets say Ennis will be re-evaluated in a week, Grade 2 strains tend to keep players out 3-4 weeks, meaning it’s unlikely he plays on the five-game road trip that starts Nov. 2.

On the bright side, the Rockets will get back Chris Paul for Friday’s game, back from his two-game suspension for having the unmitigated gall to stand up for himself when Rajon Rondo spit on him. (Read the end of that last sentence again in a sarcastic voice before commenting.)

The Rockets are off to a rocky 1-3 start with both an offense and a defense in the bottom 11 of the NBA. While the offense will right itself once everyone gets healthy, there were questions about the defense going into the season after the team gave up Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute (and, maybe more importantly, assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik). Those problems have looked worse than expected, the Rockets’ communication on switches and comfort level in the defensive system is not the same.

It’s a long season, the Rockets have time to get guys healthy and figure out the defense. But right now, they do not look like the team that was up at half of Game 7 against the Warriors in the playoffs last season.

Mike D’Antoni on Rockets’ defense: ‘I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it.’

Associated Press
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Last season the Houston Rockets’ defense allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, seventh best in the NBA. After the All-Star break they allowed just 103.8 per 100, fourth best during that stretch. By the end of the season, the Rockets switched every screen on- and off-ball (something they felt they needed to handle the Warriors in the playoffs) and leaned on defensive minded role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It got them within a game — within a half, really, the Rockets led at half of Games 6 and 7 vs the Warriors — of reaching the NBA Finals and almost certainly bringing home a title.

This season, the conventional wisdom was the Rockets would take a big step back defensively. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left as free agents, replaced on some level by James Ennis (a quality defender), Carmelo Anthony (not so much) and Michael Carter-Williams. Defensive-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, adding to the losses.

That narrative was fed opening night when Anthony Davis did whatever he wanted on his way to 32 points, Elfird Payton (yes, Elfrid Payton) put up a triple-double, and the Pelicans scored at a 124.8 points per 100 pace in blowing the Rockets out.

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t see the season going that way. Speaking to  Sam Amick of The Athletic he defended the team’s defense this season.

I think we’re even deeper this year, so we can have fresher guys on the floor… Trevor and Mbah a Moute were big parts of (Houston’s switching defense), but it’ll be taken up by Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a very good defensive player. James Ennis, who has energy and can play defense, and has all kinds of energy, to Eric Gordon, who will play with Chris and James a little bit more. So I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it. ‘Melo and the guys are smart enough (to know that) by switching it helps them too. They don’t have to fight through screens and all that. We’re just switching everything to try to keep guys in front. We have a nice philosophy, I think, where players understand what we’re trying to do.

The only thing that’s really changed is that (assistant coach) Roy (Rogers) has the (defensive) voice, in film sessions, talking to them, and (former assistant) Jeff (Bzdelik) had the voice (last season, before unexpectedly leaving during the summer). We all sat down to figure out what we wanted to do defensively, what were the best matchups, talking to Chris and James and PJ about, ‘OK, who you guarding tonight, and what do you think?’ And they’ll figure it out. But at the end of the day, the information still flows exactly the same.”

While the system may be the same, the players executing it are not. Carter-Williams was just lost and a mess defensively in the opener. Anthony will be better than some think as a team defender during the regular season (not good, but not a complete dumpster fire), but he can be exploited in a playoff series (Utah hunted him out in the first round last season, and it worked). P.J. Tucker is a fantastic defender, as is Chris Paul, but both are a year older and not getting faster.

Opening night was an aberration — the Rockets are not that bad on either end of the floor. It’s just one game and every team will have a few clunkers over the course of 82. The Rockets will play better against the Lakers in LeBron James‘ home opener Saturday night (that will not be an easy game for Houston by any measure).

Right now it feels like the Rockets are headed for a step back defensively this season, and with that their margins against the Warriors get even smaller. We’ll see over time if D’Antoni knows best.