Try as they might, the Houston Rockets have failed to replicate the defensive prowess that secured their run to the best record in the league last season and to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Whether due to injuries or roster construction, the results haven't been the same.
The inability to fashion even a league-average defense continues to undermine all the Rockets (32-23) are aiming to accomplish. There have been flashes of defensive improvement, but for the most part, Houston has struggled to defend consistently enough to support its second-ranked offense and the historic season guard James Harden is burnishing on a nightly basis.
"We've got to be consistent for four quarters," Harden said after a defensive collapse in the third greased the skids to a 117-112 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday. "It's pretty simple."
When the Rockets play host the Dallas Mavericks (26-29) on Monday at Toyota Center in their penultimate contest before the scheduled All-Star break, they will continue in earnest their pursuit of that elusive consistency.
Houston limited Oklahoma City to 75 combined points in the first, second, and fourth periods. The Thunder posted a whopping 42 points in the third, though, to erase what was once a 26-point deficit and reclaim momentum entering the fourth quarter.
Wild variances of defensive effort have come to identify the Rockets this season. After finishing seventh in defensive rating last season at 105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, the Rockets are 25th this season (112.0). Since Jan. 1, Houston is a modest 11-8 and its leaky defense (113.8 rating) is directly attributed to its inability to build a winning streak and propel up the standings.
"We get Clint (Capela) back (after the break) and the defense was really good in the first half," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We've just got to continue that, and we'll build on this."
The Mavericks, with an eye seemingly on the future following their recent acquisition of injured New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, won for the third time in four games this month after limiting the Portland Trail Blazers to nine points in the fourth quarter of a 102-101 victory on Sunday.
Forward Luka Doncic, the unquestioned frontrunner for rookie-of-the-year honors, scored 13 of his 28 points in the fourth while also contributing nine rebounds and six assists.
Tim Hardaway Jr., one of the newcomers acquired alongside Porzingis, chipped in 24 points for Dallas.
The Mavericks appear ill-suited to seriously pursue a postseason berth, yet they seem disinclined to punt on this season. Doncic is capable of keeping them in almost every contest, and it was his flurry of baskets down the stretch of Dallas' previous meeting with the Rockets that yielded a comeback victory.
The Mavericks are 2-0 against Houston this season and one victory shy of claiming the season series despite the difference of the teams in the standings.
Still, the challenge of winning in Houston in the second game of a back-to-back reverberates.
"It's the Western Conference," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "It's another tough set of matchups coming at you 100 miles an hour."
--Field Level Media
Rockets to face Mavs looking for improved defense