The Rockets’ primary concern in the wake of losing three consecutive games, a rough stretch that came immediately after a 14-game winning streak, is getting key injured players healthy.
“We’ll be all right. That’s it. That’s all it is,” guard James Harden said after a 112-107 loss Monday night to the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Guys are playing a little bit too many minutes. Our defense isn’t really there consistently, and our offense, we aren’t making shots like we need to be. We’ll be all right. It’s a part of it. We’ve just got to fight through it. It’s a long season.”
Russell Westbrook had 31 points and 11 assists to help the Oklahoma City Thunder stay hot with a 112-107 win over the Houston Rockets on Monday night.
The Rockets have filed a protest of Friday’s loss in which Clippers guard Jawun Evans should have fouled out with three minutes to play with Los Angeles holding a three-point lead.
Guard Chris Paul has missed the past two games with a strained left adductor, and the Rockets hope that he can play in one of the two games in the upcoming road back-to-back against the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. Key reserve forward Luc Mbah a Moute has been out since dislocating his right shoulder Dec. 13 and could miss another two weeks. Center Clint Capela returned Monday after missing three of the previous four games due to a bruised left heel.
Houston has lost only one of the 16 games that they have had Paul, whose return from the monthlong absence due to a bruised left knee sparked the Rockets’ long winning streak.
The Rockets (25-7) have slipped to second in the Western Conference standings, a game behind the Golden State Warriors. Coach Mike D’Antoni said he has “no doubts” that the Rockets will soon return to elite status, alluding to how much Houston has missed Paul, who exited early in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers that started the rough stretch.
“None at all,” D’Antoni said. “We had like five or six or seven straight stops to start the fourth and we couldn’t score. We got 19 [points] in the fourth because James sits for five or six minutes. We have a solution for that. No, there’s no doubts.”
The Rockets actually considered Monday night’s performance a step in the right direction. Their recent defensive struggles continued — Houston has allowed 119.6 points per 100 possessions during their losing streak, a drastic spike for a team that had recently ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency. However, the Rockets believed they played with significantly better effort than the past two games, crediting the Thunder’s star trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for Oklahoma City shooting 54.4 percent from the floor.
“It’s a step back to where we needed to be,” said Harden, who had 29 points, eight rebounds and 14 assists. “We played harder. We competed at a high level. Give them credit. They made shots, especially at the end down of the stretch. We’ve just got to be better and get ready for another one.
“Just be resilient. That’s all you can say. Keep fighting, keep playing for each other and things will turn.”
The Rockets consistently torched opponents with Paul running the second unit during Houston’s winning streak. With Paul and Mbah a Moute out, Houston’s bench production has plummeted. The Rockets’ bench scored only eight points Monday, when guard Briante Weber, who is on a two-way contract, going scoreless in 18 minutes.
But the Rockets were not dismayed to lose a close game to an Oklahoma City team that has won 11 of its past 14 games, including five in a row.
“Paul George and Melo and Westbrook are not bad,” D’Antoni said, chuckling at his understatment. “When they shoot that well and play that well, we have to make it up in other areas. And that other [way] is wearing street clothes. That’s the way it is. It’s a pretty easy explanation, I think.”