Thursday, May 26

Takeaways from Rockets’ loss to Trail Blazers

The final score might have looked it, but this was not another in the Rockets’ run of blowout losses in Toyota Center.

There were times it seemed to be headed in that direction, with the Rockets trailing by 18 in the first half. And the Trail Blazers’ final five-minute burst allowed them to pull away comfortably. But the Rockets’ play did improve from the homecourt duds that preceded it and during the game.

The problem is that while growth is the Rockets’ primary goal, it is not their only goal. They do want to win. They played on Friday to win, fighting back from the brink to within six heading to the fourth quarter, to within four early in the fourth and back within six with five minutes left.

That’s what made whatever stride they made unsatisfying. No one plays with a goal of delaying the blowout.

Perhaps a few good signs could be cobbled together to a chance to win a home game, but after losses to the Spurs and Trail Blazers to open the homestand, the Rockets face the Warriors and Cavaliers in hopes of ending their losing streak at Toyota Center, now at 10 games.

“It’s tough. We want to for sure win home games for these fans,” Rockets center Christian Wood said. “They deserve better, and we have to be better.”

1. Green works to get going

With his shot betraying him, and perhaps even with the pressure to produce mounting, Jalen Green found a way, perhaps the best or only way, to find his shooting touch. I have stopped looking.

Green still took his shots, putting up eight 3-pointers, hitting two. But he focused on everything else. He more aggressively took the ball to the basket. He looked to distribute when in crowds, rather than to rise above them. I have defended better. The shot, he hoped, would follow.

“I’ve been in a little bit of a slump, so I tried to get myself going, try to be aggressive from the jump,” Green said. “That’s the best way to get yourself out of a shooting slump.”

There is something old school about drawing fouls to repair a shot. The nine free throws he attempted were his second-most from him this season. They helped him score 17 points, his most in 10 games.

“You see something go in. Easy. They’re free,” Green said. “My main focus was to try to win the game. I tried to lock up on defense first. That’s what I used to do in high school and G League, focus on defense.

“I feel I have to do pretty much everything on the court. So, I get myself going with some rebounds. Get a couple steals. I think I find other ways to impact the game.”

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That might be the best way to turn things around. Doing more things well would help the Rockets win but it could do more than that.

His ability to draw the defense and set up teammates could be especially valuable with Kevin Porter Jr. out, and the Green’s five assists on Friday tied for his most in his rookie season. But feeling good about contributing could also take pressure off the shooting.

“I love when he’s playing like that,” Wood said. “He’s getting downhill and when he drives, the defense collapses. He can make the pass. He had a few good passes today when the defense collapsed on him. When he is aggressive like that, he’s tough to guard because his first step is just crazy quick.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas, however, assumed Green would remain aggressive. He is confident that the shot will be back. He knew that as much as players look at shooting and scoring stats, he wants Green to see the growth in other areas.

“Jalen’s always going to be aggressive,” Silas said. “He got to the free throw line a bunch. He made a few jumpers which was good and hopefully, he’s moving in the right direction. As I continue to say with him, it’s (about) shot quality, it’s (about) continuing to do his work on him. And he did some really good things defensively.

“Jalen’s going to be fine. He’s going to be just fine. Overall, when he has the ball and he is in attack mode, good things happen. He can play well and not make shots. We try our best not to attach good play to whether the ball goes in or not. The details, the small things, the things he has markedly improved on, and our group has markedly improved on, we highlight those things.”

That’s part of the growth that is the primary objective. That potential also led Trail Blazers veteran CJ McCollum to share advice after the game.

McCollum, like Damian Lillard before him, arrived more fully formed as a veteran of four college seasons. Green was drafted as a veteran of 15 G League games. While that experience with the NBA elite transition program might have helped with the professionalism Green has displayed since he was selected, he had a great deal to learn.

“I told him after the game, as well as the young fella with the bounce, Josh Christopher, ‘Work on your skills,’” McCollum said. “’You’re athletic. Ya’ll got a lot of upside in terms of what you can do in the open court. But you have to work on your skills, ballhandling, getting to spots, shooting, the fundamentals of the game, footwork. That’s what separates you and gets you through these tough moments because you can’t always dunk. You got to be able to do something else.’

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“I think they’re getting there. OG is working there. They’ll be all right with coach (John) Lucas.”

Some of those Lucas lessons have been focused on Green’s shot. When Green was out with the hamstring injury, Lucas and Green worked on how he started his shot, with the drills initially seeming to pay off. Silas said Green has seemed to revert to the old habit, rushing through the shot too much. But Green said he remains confident in Lucas’ instructions from him.

He was every bit as certain about his ability to reclaim his shooting touch.

“It’s all right,” Green said. “It’s going to happen. The shot’s going to fail.”

He did not shoot well on Friday but might have taken steps in that direction.

2. A much-needed jolt

When the Rockets go to their bench, KJ Martin usually is first to check in with Armoni Brooks and with Christopher close behind. On Friday, Brooks played seven minutes in the first half before the Rockets tweaked the second unit with veteran DJ Augustin playing with the 20-year-olds, Christopher and Martin. The combination keyed the comeback.

If there is anything the Rockets should get from the bouncy, young legs of Martin and Christopher, it would be energy. If the Rockets can defend well enough, they can get out on breaks. Martin can put a charge into a team and a home crowd. In a season about developing young talent, both have improved and showed it on Friday.

“I was proud of KJ, the energy he brought off the bench; Josh Christopher, the energy he brought off the bench,” Silas said. “That group that brought us back, they did a really good job.”

Martin’s 17 points, on 8 of 11 shooting, were a season high. Christopher’s 14 were his most in eight games, adding three assists without a turnover.

Both have potential to be solid, disruptive defensive players, which is a significant improvement for Martin from his first season. Both also have a long way to go. Friday offered a reminder of why the Rockets will invest in getting them there.

3. From sitting out in the morning to playing through the night

When the day began, even when the Rockets returned to Toyota Center Friday afternoon, they did not know if Wood would be playing at all. He woke up with a migraine headache and stayed home for the morning walk-through. He was listed as questionable to play and then a game-time decision.

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Wood, however, said he was determined to play.

“It was a little tough this morning, but I’ll get through it,” Wood said. “A migraine’s not going to stop me from playing.”

Once he started, he did not want to stop at all. Wood stayed in throughout the Rockets’ third quarter run from down 18 to within six. He started the fourth quarter and played 2 ½ more minutes, knocking down a turnaround jumper to briefly bring the Rockets to within four.

His 36 ½ minutes were his most in 20 games played, since Dec. 11 in Memphis. His shot from him was off, making just 1 of 6 3s. But in other ways, Wood had one of his best games from him on his way to 21 points with 15 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.

“He obviously didn’t want to come out, for sure. But he was playing well,” Silas said. “He was basically getting every rebound that we needed. I think tonight might have been his best job offensively when they had the four (Robert Covington) on him.

“Sometimes that can get us stagnant, or we can have some bad offense when they have the four on him and the five on (Jae’Sean) Tate. But this was his best job of attacking that.”

That is significant for the Rockets if they are ever to pair Wood with a center again. As much as the Rockets avoid playing Wood and Alperen Sengun together, that could be something to try again if Sengun can handle the defensive responsibility and Wood can take advantage of mismatches offensively as he did on Friday.

But his play against the Trail Blazers was not about some other game and some other lineup. It was to try to finish a comeback and get a home win. So, he came back from the migraine and kept playing.

“I think it was just an unspoken thing,” Wood said. “I asked if I was tired or not. I told him I was not tired. Of course I’m going to tell him I’m not tired to stay in the game, for sure.”

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