HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets on Wednesday played in the kind of game they have to win if the goal is to make the playoffs, as it appears to be. It was at home against the perfectly middling Milwaukee Bucks, and the Rockets were trying out a new rotation.
The starting power forward, now, is second-year Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas, who stands 7-feet, weighs 222 pounds and was the 20th selection in the 2011 draft. He had spent most of his career in the D-league or in a dry uniform on the Rockets bench, but the Rockets felt he was ready to use his intriguing offensive repertoire at the NBA level and last week traded the two forwards who had been playing above him, Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris.
Motiejunas is difficult to pronounce for Americans (it’s moe-tee-YOU-nus), so a lot of them call him “D-Mo.”
“I thought D-Mo played well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
And this was excellent news, indeed.
Behind Motiejunas in the rotation, now, is Thomas Robinson, whom the Rockets acquired in the three-team trade involving Patterson and Morris. Robinson was the No. 5 pick in the most recent draft but had not been productive enough for the Kings’ liking, so there he was in Houston, after two days of practice, trying to run the Rockets’ stuff. He had two points and one rebound in eight minutes.
The result of all this was not a different Rockets identity, but a team that does appear to be more difficult to guard, which is saying something, as the Rockets have led the NBA in scoring for most of the season. Motiejunas had 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his first career start, making the Rockets brass look smart. Patterson and Morris are both slightly higher-paid lottery picks who don’t have Motiejunas’ offensive ceiling. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey traded both of them (plus reserves Cole Aldrich and Toney Douglas) without losing anything on the offensive end and added a muscular top-five pick who had played all of 51 NBA games for bench support.
So this is how the Rockets (31-28) intend to hold off the Los Angeles Lakers (28-30), who are chasing Houston for that eighth-and-final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It looks like a great plan.
One problem, though: The Rockets lost the game.
Milwaukee beat Houston 110-107 on a fadeaway 3-pointer by Monta Ellis at the buzzer. It was the Rockets’ second loss in a row.
“I think we let two get away,” James Harden said.
Harden said that because those two losses were to teams with losing records, exactly the kinds of games Houston can’t afford to let get away. They’re also exactly the kinds of games the Rockets are going to be playing a lot of for the rest of the season.
Houston’s final 23 games include matchups against Orlando (twice), Dallas (twice), Phoenix (four times), Sacramento (twice), Minnesota and Cleveland. The best record by any of those teams is 25-32.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are hitting the meat of their schedule. They still play Atlanta and Golden State twice and have games against the Bulls, Thunder, Clippers and Spurs. The worst record in that group is Chicago’s 32-25 mark.
Then the Lakers and Rockets play each other the final day of the season in Los Angeles.
So you’d say the Rockets are significantly more likely to make the playoffs than the Lakers are, but the Rockets suddenly are not physically the same team they were during those 31 wins.
“We’re going to have to get a little bit more accustomed to playing everybody in new groups,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
Houston has been one of the NBA’s least dense defensive teams all year. After a failure to secure a defensive rebound gave Ellis a shot at the game-winner, Harden admitted that center Omer Asik’s prodigious rebounding has the effect of making his teammates lazy, deferential rebounders.
“I think so,” he said. “That’s what we did, especially late in the game.”
Asik had 22 rebounds to go with 16 points Wednesday, but Houston still barely edged the Bucks on the glass (47-43) and the guy who was drafted No. 5 primarily for his rebounding (Robinson) was sitting on the bench when the Bucks collected that fateful board.
And this is what McHale means when he talks about getting accustomed.
McHale also groaned about some defensive game plan stuff that to the layman’s ear sounded like it ought to be fairly elementary stuff for professional basketball players. How to guard pick-and-rolls and pindowns and such — fundamental elements of NBA offense.
“Back to work tomorrow, work on the stuff and hammer the nail one more time,” he said. “At a certain point — we go over the same thing every day, pick-and-roll coverage and pindown coverage.”
The Rockets’ season started off this way, with a lot of talk about gelling with a new roster and it taking some time to put together, and it’s going to sound that way for the rest of the year too.
“It was a bad loss,” Chandler Parsons said. “There is no way around it. There is no way we should have lost that game. These are the ones you look back on and these are the ones that cost you.”