Same old story for Rockets as defense struggles in loss to Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- The Houston Rockets' inability to defend opponents was a topic of discussion for the majority of the offseason.

On Wednesday night at Staples Center, the topic was again at the forefront as the tired Rockets' defense failed completely in a 120-114 loss to a young and inspired Los Angeles Lakers team.

Scoring points wasn't the problem, especially when you have James Harden as the point guard and Mike D'Antoni as the head coach. Houston was willing to trade buckets with Los Angeles in the season opener, hoping Luke Walton's group would tire in the end.

The opposite occurred and the Rockets were embarrassed, including a fourth quarter in which they were outscored 30-18.

"We got 114, that's enough points to win," Trevor Ariza said. "But when you're giving up 120 you're not doing your job on the other end. We got to get to doing our job on both ends of the floor."

Houston had trouble guarding Julius Randle, who scored 18 points and snagged seven rebounds, in the front court. Nene, Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson just had nothing for him. In the backcourt, D'Angelo Russell scored 20 points and Jordan Clarkson arrived off the bench to add a team-high 25 points and three steals for the Lakers.

"They just beat us one-on-one tonight," Anderson said. "We need to do a better job of stopping that one-on-one game. They made a lot of tough shots, they played really well, so credit that to them. But we need to guard the ball better and our man better."

Talking about the Rockets' defense is an old story that has become new again. A new defensive system with an emphasis on communication, rotating, boxing out, and just caring about it was supposed to change everything.

It really hasn't.

All it has done is continue the narrative that D'Antoni's teams don't play well on the defensive end and at some point it costs them games, like what happened Wednesday night.

This isn't like Phoenix, where practicing defense was a mystery. The Rockets do practice defense with assistant coaches Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers conducting defensive drills and demanding what they want to see.

The Lakers were more athletic than the Rockets, but Sam Dekker and K.J. McDaniels provided the Rockets some help off the bench.

D'Antoni praised the efforts of McDaniels, who scored 11 points thanks to athletic drives and the chemistry he has built with Harden. Dekker, who scored his first NBA baskets as a pro on a layup, played 13 minutes and scored only four and took three shots.

D'Antoni talked about how a lack of fresh legs in the second half led the Rockets to produce only two fast-break points and three second-chance points. Dekker and McDaniels are young players who could help on that end.

"It hurts everywhere," D'Antoni said. "But it shows up, you see it on the 3s and not running and that's an indication that they lost their legs and it hurts on the defensive end too."

Houston's schedule doesn't get easier. The week concludes with consecutive games against the Dallas Mavericks, a slower team with an aging superstar.

Tuesday begins a five-game trip to Cleveland, New York, a visit to Dwight Howard in Atlanta, Washington and San Antonio.

Before you know it, the Rockets will already have to play catch-up in the West. It's something you don't want. Sure the Rockets can score the ball, but as they say, at some point you need to stop the ball from going in.

"It's only one game," said Harden, who was masterful with 34 points and 17 assists. "We still trying to figure out both ends of the floor. I told the guys in order for us to win together, you got to lock in defensively. First quarter, first half shake the rust off but that second half we didn't get stops when we needed to and they made big shots."

Sounds like something we've heard before.