The Rockets had their usual math problem with the Pelicans scoring the 3-pointer the Rockets missed. They have grown accustomed to the matter, having been forced to try and get over the immutable fact that 3 is worth more than 2.
But with former Rockets coach and 3-point defensive back Mike D’Antoni looking on in his role as adviser to the Pelicans, the Rockets took the math problem to another level.
The three are worth even more than one.
The Rockets lived on the line. They had their best and most prolific free throw game of the season. But with the Pelicans scoring too easily from the start, the Rockets couldn’t keep up like that.
The Pelicans led by 20 at halftime with the Rockets trailing within nine with six minutes left and within seven in the final minute. But the Rockets couldn’t stop in the stretch they had to stun the Pelicans on Friday, falling 117-107, Sunday at the Toyota Center, snapping their three-game hitting streak of the season.
Jalen Green had 40 points, two fewer than in his career, making 14 of 14 free throws. Kevin Porter Jr. added 25. Between them, they made 7 of 18 3s. The rest of the Rockets, however, went 2 out of 15 from the 3-point line. Only Tari Eason, who had 10 points, also scored in double figures.
Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum led the Pelicans with 26 points each while Jonas Valanciunas had 21. When the Rockets were still within range, Valanciunas hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final minutes as the Rockets tried to defend him with 6-4 Jae ‘ Sean Tate after Alperen Sengun had committed a foul.
This forced the Pelicans to score one run at a time. But by then, the Rockets — who went 36-of-38 from the line, making their first 21 attempts — had been scoring in walking pace for too long to keep pace.
Convert to organic
When the Rockets halved a 20-point halftime deficit in the third quarter, they improved in several important ways. They fought a little more defensively. They handled the ball better, committing a turnover in the third quarter. But most of all, Green took over.
Green scored 16 of his 40 points in the third quarter, looking completely in control as he worked to find shots in the lane or drove to draw fouls.
When he completed a four-point play early in the fourth quarter, Green had 35 points, having hit all 14 of his free throws, one fewer than his career in a game (of 17 attempts).
The Rockets’ record for free throws made without errors is James Harden’s 24. Kevin Durant holds the record for most free throws made without errors by a player age 21 or younger, going as high as 18 as a rookie to the SuperSonics.
The game was Green’s 11th this season as he scored at least 30 points. He had eight 30-point games as a rookie, giving him the ninth-most 30-point games by a player age 21 or younger in the first 132 games of his career.
The defense has rested
Late in the Rockets’ win on Friday, the Pelicans missed four shots they’d normally consider good looks. Trey Murphy III missed a pair of open threes. Ingram missed midrange jumpers twice.
The Rockets appeared to have concluded on Sunday that giving up open shots would be a solid defensive strategy.
Some of their problems came from the attention they needed to give Valanciunas inside, sending double team help to the post. But they also allowed the Pelicans to move with the ball easily for good shots, which screamed opportunities for McCollum and Ingram.
They also failed to equalize in transition, notably giving up in corner 3. Valanciunas did not dominate, although he made his presence felt. The Pelicans ballhandlers did it.
Playing in traffic
The Rockets rely on dots in the paint. They average fifth place in the league and led the league in paint scoring in March.
They have to score on the inside since they can’t score from the 3-point line, where they have the worst shooting percentage in the NBA and made just 3-of-19 (15.8%) in the first half.
But teams do scouting. The Pelicans didn’t even have to scout since they played the Rockets two days earlier when the Rockets scored 60 points in the paint (two days after scoring 78). Then, the Pelicans filled the paint with defenders and the Rockets still charged into the crowd.
As the first half progressed, the Rockets moved the ball like it was lead. They had five assists in the half. But their biggest offensive problem was when they forced the ball into packs of bodies, ran into no-go traps and committed offensive fouls.
The usual numbers problem was a problem. While the Rockets made three 3s in the half, the Pelicans went 10 for 20 from deep. But the Rockets were just 9 for 18 in the paint, trailing by 10 points where they usually have and almost always need a lead.
They finished with just 34 points in the paint, a low number in part due to how often they fouled and went to the line. But they also needed to go inside more, since they couldn’t get out.