Lakers, Rockets focused on defensive shortcomings
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HOUSTON -- In the moment it seemed like an opportunity for a turnaround, with the Los Angeles Lakers rolling into Toyota Center on Dec. 20 and snapping the Rockets' 14-game winning streak with an effort highlighting their offensive potential and youthful exuberance.
In hindsight, that victory proved to be a blip on the radar. The Lakers (11-23) haven't won since, and will lug a five-game skid into Toyota Center when they face the Rockets on Sunday.
The Lakers are just 3-10 this month. After closing November with a defensive rating (103.0) that left them ranked ninth in the league, the Lakers have dropped to 12th overall. During their current slump, they've produced a 111.7 defensive rating, a mark that ranks 24th in the NBA.
Injuries to center Brook Lopez (ankle) and rookie guard Lonzo Ball (shoulder) have served as obstacles. However, the Lakers should be able to maintain their identity through the maladies.
"Obviously, we've had some different lineups trying some different things out, but to me that's the No. 1 thing we've got to fix," Lakers coach Luke Walton said of the defense. "It's what we've been able to hang our hat on all year: we get after it on defense, we get stops, we get after it and run. We have to get back to taking pride in being a defensive team first."
Said Lakers forward Brandon Ingram, "We're kind of in a dry spell on the defensive end. The past few games team have hit us in the mouth and I don't think we've done a good job of responding when we get hit first."
It was the Lakers who steered Houston (25-9) into its tailspin. The Rockets have dropped five consecutive games, starting with their loss to the Lakers, and have also struggled finding personnel combinations to offset injuries to Luc Mbah a Moute, Chris Paul and Clint Capela.
Like the Lakers, the Rockets have fallen apart defensively this month. Without Mbah a Moute (shoulder) and Paul, two of their top perimeter defenders, Houston has been lax at preventing dribble penetration. Without Capela, their rim protection has been sorely lacking.
Paul returned from a three-game hiatus on Friday night against the Washington Wizards but he alone couldn't stem the tide. Houston fell 121-103, the third time it has allowed at least 120 points during its skid. That excludes blowing a 26-point lead in a loss at Boston a night earlier.
"Our defensive pressure wasn't where it needed to be, not just tonight but it's been like that on our little skid," Rockets guard James Harden said. "We've just got to get back to our basics, get back to how we know how to play and we'll be good."
It remains to be seen if an intact roster will enable the Rockets to reclaim the confidence they flashed winning 14 consecutive games. They've lost consecutive games with Paul in their lineup after winning their first 15 with him and expect to have Capela (right orbital fracture) on Sunday. With Mbah a Moute sidelined indefinitely, that'll be as good as it gets.
"We're getting Chris back and Clint will be back next game, so we'll see," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Updated December 30, 2017