‘Not what we want our identity to be’: Rockets struggle against physical Magic

ORLANDO — In the opener of the NBA’s 2023-24 regular season for both teams, the Houston Rockets visited the Amway Center to play the Magic. However, they quickly found they were in a battle that was the equivalent of going 12 rounds with Roy Jones Jr., the former WBA heavyweight champion and a Florida native.

Orlando bullied Houston all game on their way to a dominant 116-86 victory on Wednesday night.

“We came out on our heels a little bit, and they punched us in the mouth,” Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. said. “They came out aggressive, and that was something we are not used to.”

Being bullied is not a character trait that the Rockets want to develop or allow their opponents to do to them consistently. In the past, teams have viewed them as a team that will retreat if physical pressure is applied on both ends of the floor.

“That is not what we want our identity to be, and we know that it can’t happen again,” Smith told reporters postgame. “It is good it happened the first game, because now we can flush it out of our system and be ready for the next one.”

The defensive game plan lacked the intensity to stop the Magic from scoring at will, as Houston allowed Orlando to outscore them, 54-32, in the paint and dominate them on the boards, 57-31. It was a total reversal of what had worked perfectly for the Rockets in the five preseason games, where they finished with a 4-1 record.

Head coach Ime Udoka was not surprised by the physicality of the Magic, but he expected his team to respond with more passion.

“It was too easy for them to score all night,” he said. “It was early in the first half, as well. They were the tougher team and got every 50/50 ball, 16 offensive rebounds, and finished with seven-plus shots. But they were up 15 or so for most of the game, so they were the aggressor tonight. I didn’t expect us to wilt under their physicality.”

Orlando used an intimidation tactic and removed one of Houston’s strongest attributes by not allowing them to drive, as they consistently packed the paint with big bodies such as Wendall Carter Jr. and Jonathan Issac. It is also a blueprint other teams will deploy until the Rockets can prove they can hit mid-range and 3-point shots.

“They [Orlando] have a big team over there, and the way they guard, we knew that they were going to be physical,” Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “The next game, we just have to be ready for a similar scenario with San Antonio, who likes to pack the paint also.”

Story originally appeared on Rockets Wire