A big lead disappears: Three takeaways from Wednesday’s 116-110 loss to the Magic

Dec 21, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) and Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. (1) battle for a rebound during the first quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

A big lead disappears: Three takeaways from Wednesday’s 116-110 loss to the Magic

The Rockets have now lost four in a row, all coming at home after a 116-110 loss to the Orlando Magic. The Rockets jumped out to a 14-point lead less than six minutes into the game, and 15 midway through the third quarter, but the offense disappeared. Kevin Porter Jr. led the way with 31 points, but the Rockets couldn’t overcome 25 points from Franz Wagner and 23 from Paolo Banchero.

Can’t handle the zone

The Rockets were coasting to what looked like an easy win when Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley suddenly shifted to a zone defense midway through the third quarter, and the Rockets’ offense cratered. Orlando quickly scored 10 straight and pulled to within two when the third quarter ended.

“We were trying to get the ball to the middle, or play pick and roll and play to the weak side,” Rockets head coach Stephen Silas said. “Whenever we got the ball on the sideline, played some sort of action, whether it was a dribble handoff or a pick and roll and got the side where there’s three guys against their two we got whatever we wanted, but we didn’t execute it all the time.”

The Magic continued to play zone in the fourth quarter, and it ultimately helped get them get a lead they would never relinquish. The Rockets had the NBA’s second best zone offense entering the game, scoring 1.038 points per possession, per Synergy Sports, but Orlando’s zone held them to just 20 points over 29 possessions.

“We just got static,” Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr said. “It really wasn’t anything. It was kind of like a man zone where you get the ball in the middle, they flare out and they man up, so we knew exactly what they were doing, we just weren’t moving fast enough.”

A mini break does some good

Silas gave the team Tuesday off after Monday’s dreadful performance against San Antonio, and instead of holding a morning shoot around he held a pregame walk-through late in the afternoon.

“I wanted us to have our legs for tonight,” Silas said before the game.

The Rockets shot 19.7% from behind the 3-point line while losing their last three games, and while Silas didn’t blame it on weary legs, he didn’t rule that out as a possibility. On Wednesday, the shots started to fall again.

The Rockets started the game by knocking down three of their first four from long distance and shot 40% from 3 on the night. Along with the team shooting the ball better, the Rockets’ highest volume 3-point shooters shot it better. Jalen Green, who entered the night hitting just 20% of his threes in December, shot 4-of-11, while Porter converted on 5-of-9 threes after entering the game shooting just 18% this month.

“I’ve been getting in the gym with (assistant coach John Lucas),” Green said. “Just getting back on the (shooting) gun, just getting the reps back to what I was doing last year. I got flat with my shot, hitting the front of the rim. I think today I had a little bit more arc on it.”

Rotation tweak

When Silas goes to his bench for the first time in each half he’ll sub in K.J. Martin and Usman Garuba for Eric Gordon and Alperen Sengun, but on Wednesday he only swapped out Gordon, allowing Martin to get minutes with the Rockets other four starters

Silas said the change was more about getting Alperen Sengun a few extra minutes, but Martin is essentially the Rockets’ sixth starter, and whenever Porter, Green, Gordon, or Jabari Smith Jr. miss a game, it’s Martin who takes their spot in the starting five, and with the Rockets set to play back-to-backs in each of the next two weeks it makes sense to get Martin in there with the starters because the Rockets won’t play Gordon in both ends of the back-to-backs.

Next up

The Rockets will play the final game of their season-long seven-game homestand on Friday night when Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks visit Toyota Center.

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