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Watkins: Newcomers, injuries test Rockets' chemistry


HOUSTON – Kevin McHale was honest when discussing his basketball team on Monday night after a gritty 110-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We got a lot of work to do,” the Houston Rockets coach said. “We are a long way away from being a functioning basketball team.”

Houston’s first win was the exact opposite of what fans saw in the first three games of the season, when the Rockets were beaten by a total of 60 points. That has never happened in the history of the NBA.

One victory, however, does not mean the Rockets are fixed.

Finding chemistry

One of the team’s foremost problems is a lack of chemistry. Several players missed much of training camp due to injuries, and roster issues have forced McHale to use 10 different combinations of players and three different starting lineups already, while the season is still in its infancy.

McHale described his team as “dinosaur slow” on offense and lacking an overall edge because players just haven’t been together long enough.

For the season opener, McHale didn’t have star center Dwight Howard, who was serving a league suspension, and McHale missed Howard again in the third game because the training staff wanted Howard to rest on the front end of a back-to-back.

Also missing in the last two games was starting power forward Terrence Jones, who suffered a lacerated right eyelid. Backup power forward Donatas Motiejunas still is recovering from back surgery.

The chemistry problems will solve themselves as more players participate on the floor, but it’s going to take time.

“There is no excuse for how bad we played for three games,” McHale said. “There is no excuse for that. That’s terrible. I told them they’re professional basketball players, you’re not playing lacrosse.”

Harden and Lawson lack chemistry

Also struggling is James Harden, who started the season shooting 22 percent from the field and just 9 percent from 3-point range.

However, Harden turned it around with 37 points on 12-of-26 shooting against the Thunder. He had a strong third quarter Monday when he posted a plus-minus score of plus-14. Meanwhile, point guard Ty Lawson still was trying to get everybody into the flow when Harden told him to become more aggressive offensively. McHale wants Lawson to push the pace and play faster.

Lawson responded, scoring 14 points with a season-high 11 assists, despite four turnovers. He also produced a game-high seven points off turnovers and his assist ratio per 100 possessions was 39.2 percent.

According to ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle, it’s been a struggle thus far when Harden and Lawson have shared the court. The team’s offensive rating (ORTG) is 86.9 and defensive rating (DRTG) is 113.9 with both on the court. Were that the team’s overall rating, they’d be the worst in the league. In any other lineup configuration, the Rockets’ ORTG is 91.3 and DRTG is 106.7, both markedly improvements.

McHale needs the duo to become playmakers, but again, that kind of chemistry takes time.

“It’s a new team in some ways for me. I’m having a hard time getting to the pulse of it…It’s a lot of hit and miss. It feels, honestly, like live darts you’re throwing at the dartboard and seeing what you get. But we’ll zero in as a team.”

Kevin McHale

“We’ve been doing the same thing, just getting in the lane and attacking,” Lawson said. “There wasn’t too much standing around until crunch time. We were moving the ball, cutting, and everyone did their job.”

The West is dangerous

Houston’s three losses came at the hands of Western Conference opponents — two against the lowly Denver Nuggets and one versus defending champ Golden State.

So a victory over the Thunder smoothed over some of the problems — and worry — plaguing McHale. Only some, though.

“It’s a new team in some ways for me,” McHale said. “I’m having a hard time getting to the pulse of it. A lot of times when you’re with guys and you’re with them long enough, you say, ‘When do we [substitute] in this game at this point? Do we need this guy? Who does this?’ I’m not sure what we’re getting out of guys. It’s a lot of hit and miss. It feels, honestly, like live darts you’re throwing at the dartboard and seeing what you get. But we’ll zero in as a team.”

In a long season, 0-3 doesn’t look too bad. However, with how strong the West is, a 0-3 could mean you’re falling behind.

“Keep fighting, keep playing the right way, keep doing the right things,” Harden said. “[We need] intensity on defense. Defense is going to lead to offense. The first couple of games, we weren’t doing that. We weren’t getting shots, so we weren’t getting out in transition.”

Indeed, the Rockets’ defense, while inconsistent at times, forced the Thunder to miss 10 of 15 shots.

Houston plays Orlando on Wednesday before a weekend trip to the West Coast where they have consecutive games at Sacramento and Los Angeles Clippers. So the Rockets’ have a chance to continue their winning ways.

“There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs,” Harden said. “We started off from the down.”



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