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Rockets see improved mentality, team approach driving defensive growth

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After playing two highly anticipated primetime games with rookie showdowns in front of a packed Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the Houston Rockets found themselves facing one of their in-state rivals in front of a half-empty arena on Monday night. For a quarter and a half, most of those fans were engaged in something other than watching the Rockets, who were trailing the San Antonio Spurs by 18 points.

Houston’s defense had surrendered 54 points to San Antonio with two minutes to go in the first half, and it looked as if they would head into halftime with the coaching staff perplexed about what happened to all the defensive sets they were running in practice. Summer league head coach Rick Higgins had seen enough, and he called a timeout to in hopes of lifting composure for his young group of players.

During most timeouts, the coaches will huddle first and then address the players. But this time, it was different. Coach Higgins allowed the players to talk amongst themselves and fix whatever communication issues they were having with each other. The seemingly resulted in a 10-0 run to finish the half, which cut the lead to eight points.

“We changed our mentality as a group,” Higgins said. “In no way was that me calling a timeout, saying whatever it is I said. It was they looked at each other and they made a decision they were going to put more physicality, more effort, and more togetherness into the game.”

The defensive mentality carried over into the second half as the Rockets outscored the Spurs 51-30, limiting them to 11 points on 19% shooting in the third quarter. Ultimately, Houston won with ease, 97-84, and rookies Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason were standouts on both ends.

“It is always a group thing,” Huggins said regarding his team’s defensive effort in the second half. “An individual player can say one thing, but it doesn’t matter if the group doesn’t hear it, take it, and run with it. Just because one person says it, the next person has to say it to the next person and believe it, and then it just trickles down.”

Although talking to one another may sound easy, it is one of the more difficult things to do when you have a group of young players who are only playing their third game together. Yet, the Rockets have shown a propensity to get on the same page in spurts at the 2022 summer league.

In their first game versus Orlando, Houston was attacked early by rookie Paolo Banchero — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft — who led his team to a blistering 52% shooting clip in the first half. Yet, the Rockets clamped down in the second half and limited the Magic to just 29% shooting, with Banchero shooting 17% over the final two quarters.

Houston’s next game against Oklahoma City featured the No. 2 selection in this year’s draft in 7-foot-1 Chet Holmgren, along with three other players who had logged significant minutes during the 2021 NBA season. After going back and forth with the Thunder, Houston used a suffocating defensive scheme in the fourth quarter to limit Oklahoma City to just 30% shooting, leading to the team’s first summer league win.

Higgins and the Rockets now have time to implement a game plan that could allow them to put together a better defensive effort throughout all four quarters, as they will have two days off before facing the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m. CDT (schedule), with the game set for a national broadcast on NBA TV.

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Takeaways: Jabari Smith Jr. breaks out, Tari Eason keeps rolling as Rockets blast Spurs