Three games into their eight-game run of seeding games in the Orlando-area bubble, the Houston Rockets have defended in fits and spurts, alternatingly looking lackluster and vigorous when the mood hits.
The vim with which the Rockets (42-25) defended the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday was not enough to yield victory, with Houston taking its first loss since the season resumed.
But those stretches against Portland showcased how feisty the Rockets can be. If Houston plays with that same determination against the Los Angeles Lakers (51-16) on Thursday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the chances for success improve greatly.
"We're doing better," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Sometimes we lack the aggressiveness and the energy on defense that we need to have. It's a little bit of a choice. We've got to choose to be more aggressive and get out.
"We can improve that. We can improve some of our communication. We're doing a good job of not making the same mistake over and over, but we've got to do a better job of being more aggressive on what we're doing."
The Rockets' focus on their defense has steered attention from their erratic perimeter shooting in the bubble. While Houston has posted a 3-point percentage during the restart (36.4 percent) slightly above their season average (34.9 percent), the number of missed open looks has been concerning.
With opposing defenses aggressively double-teaming James Harden, the Rockets will need better marksmanship from forwards P.J. Tucker (33.3 percent on treys in the bubble) and Robert Covington (20.7 percent over the last three games).
Still, despite those issues, the Rockets have looked the part of a viable contender, particularly in marquee matchups such as the upcoming tilt.
"It's a value playing every single game right now," Tucker said. "Eight games to get as much time to get back acquainted and figure everything out, the different ways people are playing us, to get back used to doing everything that we were used to.
"So every single game no matter who we play, I feel like they're giving us different looks and it's more learning experience for us to get ready for the playoffs."
With the top seed for the playoffs in the Western Conference clinched, the Lakers entered the final five games of the eight-game seeding restart with little to play for tangibly.
Their performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday bordered on uninspired, with the Thunder holding the Lakers to 35.2 percent shooting and leading wire-to-wire in a 105-86 win.
The Lakers played their regulars against the Thunder aside from Dwight Howard (right knee soreness). The team has have made no clear plans for how it will address minutes for the frontline performers over the final four games in the bubble.
"Yeah, we haven't made any final decisions on that," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "The plan right now is to play those guys. We still have a lot of areas to continue to improve before we feel like we're ready to win games in the playoffs and to be at the level we want to reach.
"So for us, we're still in habit-building mode and just continuing to iron some things out that we're not quite where we were, in my opinion, when the hiatus hit. And so our mindset is to continue to play our guys and to get there."
--Field Level Media
Rockets seek defensive energy against Lakers
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