Updated 11:14 am, Thursday, October 12, 2017
The Rockets were ragged to start, seeming bored with the whole preseason thing, before they stepped up their intensity enough to roll to a fourth-consecutive tuneup rout. Less clear is whether they should be happy to have won easily despite their poor start, or concerned with a lack of early intensity, a reminder of a problem last season.
If nothing else, they did show they are capable of defending well when they put their minds to it. When they do, the offense will be there. Heading into the final preseason game against the Spurs, they look like they need more preseason time to be ready for the Warriors on Tuesday. But even with the inconsistencies, the win in Memphis could be a step in that direction.
1. Mike D’Antoni said Chris Paul would be the first to say that he had a poor night, which was not possible since D’Antoni had already said it. But there was no doubt he struggled. The Rockets have no concern about that, but they do need to get him the ball in position to create more often, including when he is on the floor with James Harden. Harden can get teammates good shots so often and so early in the clock, there are possessions that Paul is just another shooter in his orbit. In some ways, that is not a bad thing. He just missed shots, going 3 of 12. But Paul did get good shots. He did not seem to find his usual rhythm. He is trying to find a balance between finding his place in the Rockets offense and the right number of possessions when he runs the customary Chris Paul offense. Some of that has to come with the second unit, but the Rockets spent some of that time experimenting with their small-ball lineup with P.J. Tucker at center. Paul might be more effective when paired with a rim-runner at center. That is likely, with Clint Capela usually returning to the floor during Paul’s stints with Harden out. Capela played 27 generally-strong minutes against the Grizzlies, but if he can get that up to 32 to 34 minutes, Paul would work with a pick-and-roll center more often. Either way, Paul will not have many nights like Wednesday’s. He does have reason to look forward to a final preseason tuneup before the games count.
2. The Rockets were determined to switch defensively throughout the game, but took it too far early. They are willing to switch at any position and often had centers Clint Capela or Nene out on guards, with Mike D’Antoni cracking they can’t do any worse than other options. But they are better when they switch later in the shot clock, when there is not much time to go one-on-one either on the perimeter or in the post. When they switched and fronted Marc Gasol early, he drew double teams and was able to pass to cutting teammates. But that was in part because of the Rockets defensive breakdowns. When they picked up their intensity and communication, they took that away. It might not have looked good at times, but the Rockets held the Grizzlies to 38 percent shooting, even in a game in which Memphis was hitting 61.1 percent of its shouts through the first 10 minutes. The Rockets went 18-0 when holding teams to less than 40 percent shooting last season. Even on a night the Rockets shot horribly, they went from a 10-point deficit to a 16-point lead with their defense. It might be difficult to judge much from a game against Memphis, a team that still lacks consistent outside shooting and seems to have no role for Chandler Parsons, just as the Rockets could not take much from scoring at easy against the Sharks and Knicks. But they made defensive mistakes and corrected them, which is the point of the preseason.
3. The Rockets dramatically improved their depth at small forward, with Luc Mbah a Moute, who has had an eye-catching preseason, and P.J. Tucker signed as free agents, and Chris Paul added as a guard that could lead to more three-guard lineups to close games with James Harden and Eric Gordon. But characteristically quietly, the holdover small forward has had perhaps the most consistent preseason on the team. Trevor Ariza have averaged 16.7 points in his 28.3 minutes per game, making 51.5 percent of his shots and 50 percent of his 3s. On a night, few others could shoot straight, Ariza went 4 of 6 on his 3s. He also had the defensive intensity that helped turned the game around. He has had that throughout the preseason, which does not come as a surprise. But he might be reaching the point that he is so reliable he is overlooked. He remains difficult to keep off the floor, even with far more options.