It’s a small margin for error
Team’s rebounding suffers because of the players’ relative lack of height
As the Rockets strode into the locker room at halftime leading the Thunder 70-48 on Saturday night at Toyota Center, Gerald Green hollered.
“Zero-zero!” Green said. “Zero-zero!”
His message seemed to suggest the Rockets needed to approach the second half with the same focus as if the score were 0-0.
Three times this season the Rockets had lost games after leading by more than 15 points. On two other occasions, they’d lost after leading by more than 10. They had not lost after leading by more than 20. Then Oklahoma City’s comeback from 26 down in a 117-112 win delivered the Rockets’ largest collapse.
In the previous four games, the Rockets had led by 29, 20, 37 and 26 points, but a recent scoring tear and a core of tested veterans could not conceal how vulnerable the team felt against its faster, longer and more
“I can tell you what’s wrong,” coach Mike D’Antoni said Sunday. “We can’t rebound.”
The Thunder could control possessions, grab offensive boards, drop in secondchance points and chip away at the lead in the second half because they are one of the two best rebounding teams and the Rockets are one of the two worst.
“It cost us 10 points last night where they got offensive rebounds, threw it back out and hit a 3,” D’Antoni said. “That’s a problem. We’ve got to address it. We’ve got to talk about it. We’ve got to do it above all.”
Rockerts substitute center Kenneth Faried had 12 rebounds, and point guard Chris Paul had 10, but when the Rockets cannot outshoot the competition, opponents are snatching back leads and leaving them out of reach.
Green had sensed a shortcoming. The Rockets’ disadvantage to the Thunder, while clear with a glance at the players on the court, is inherent against every opponent this season. No team relies so largely on players so short as the Rockets.
“We have a really small margin of error where we’ve gotta do really well defensively because we’re smaller than teams,” said starting guard Eric Gordon, 6-4.
The Rockets’ problem goes beyond having a defense fueled by 6-6 power forward P.J. Tucker and the NBA’s only starting lineup with four players shorter than 6-7. With the injection of newly acquired 6-5 guard Iman Shumpert, they are the only team with six players under 6-7 averaging at least 23 minutes per game.
When it comes to a solution, Paul said: “Probably pray for a little bit more height, but I doubt that’s coming any time soon. We’ve just got to make up for it.”
Indefatigable efforts might be a lot to ask from the Rockets, the league’s oldest team, which has started giving Paul nights off on back-to-backs.
D’Antoni alluded to Paul’s 10 rebounds as an indication short stature is not an acceptable excuse (“He’s, what, 5-7? 5-8?”), but the coach made it clear diagnosing the rebounding problem is easier than overcoming the cause of it.
The Rockets’ insufficiency not only makes reeling in more rebounds a tall task, it reveals a threat that shrinks their chances at reaching the NBA Finals.
“You can’t be (ranked No.) 27 to 28 (in rebound percentage) and think you’re going to compete for a title,” D’Antoni said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Actually, the Rockets are 29th in defensive rebounding. Their rate of 69.1 percent edges out the 68.6 percent of the 11-win Phoenix Suns.
The Rockets, who host the Mavericks on Monday and visit the Timberwolves on Wednesday, expect center Clint Capela (thumb surgery) to return after the AllStar break. The struggle for rebounds might persist until Capela, who last played Jan. 13, is adjusted back to playing his average of 34plus minutes.
“Clint will help, obviously, but this has become a problem,” D’Antoni said. “Last year, when our defense really ticked up, we were in the top three rebounding defensively.”
D’Antoni had to reel back the switch-on-everything defensive approach that flourished last year to keep big men at the rim and compensate for the worst of the rebounding trouble this season.
“But we did that,” he said, again referring to the low rebounding percentage. “That hasn’t moved the needle.
“It’s more of an anticipation and a want. We’re not as big as other teams, so if everybody does the same, which means neither one is blocking out, we lose that battle. We have to box out. We have to go after it first. Most rebounds are below the rim. Everybody on our team can jump to the rim. It’s just a matter of getting yourself in position and a desire to rebound.
“If I’ve got to go in and motivate them, then we’re in trouble. But they’re selfmotivated. They know what we’ve gotta do.”
They also know the heartbreak of coming up short multiple times. Green’s caution to his teammates proved prescient. He showed the Rockets could use a reminder as much as a rebound.