HOUSTON -- Atop the list of early surprises two weeks into the season is the wayward start of the team that produced the best record in the league last season, a squad expected to challenge for Western Conference supremacy despite a handful of cosmetic roster changes.
But instead of picking up where they left off, one game shy of advancing to the NBA Finals, the Rockets (1-4) have stumbled out of the gate, succumbing to injuries and startling defensive regression. Houston entered the week ranked 27th in defensive efficiency (114.7 points allowed per 100 possessions), a far cry from last season when they closed the schedule ranked seventh.
Following a third consecutive home loss last Friday to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets sought to distance themselves from last season's accomplishments, both as a whole and defensively. Their roster has changed enough to no longer rely on what they did then, and the emphasis shifted in practice to implementing schemes that might better fit their personnel.
"It's all little things," Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. "It's not scheme, it's really, really, really small things ... and it's new. To a lot of guys, it's new trying to figure out how we're playing. Some guys haven't played like that. I think we're going in the right direction. We have to keep working.
"We've got so many vets on this team, guys that have been around. And the season is so long you've got to stay the course. I like our attitude, especially with the younger guys. Their attitude every day is trying to get better, really listening, and trying to figure it out."
One vet who will remain sidelined when the Rockets host the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday at Toyota Center is guard James Harden. The Rockets were hoping to get Harden back prior to their embarking on a five-game, nine-day road trip starting in Brooklyn on Friday, but Houston coach Mike D'Antoni revealed on Monday that Harden needs more time to recover from the Grade 1-Plus left hamstring strain he sustained on Oct. 24 against the Utah Jazz.
The Trail Blazers (4-2) opened a stretch of five games in seven days with a 103-93 win at Indiana on Monday, their second victory on a four-game road trip that concludes in Houston. Portland lost three key reserves during the offseason -- Pat Connaughton, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier -- and was dogged by questions over its depth entering this season following that roster upheaval.
At this early stage of the season, those concerns have proven unfounded. Portland closed Monday with six players averaging double figures in scoring. At Indiana, the Trail Blazers placed seven in double figures including four reserves: Zach Collins (career-high 17 points), Evan Turner (13), Caleb Swanigan (11) and Nik Stauskas (10). Collins (11.8 points), Stauskas (10.2) and Turner (10.0) are all scoring in double figures off the bench.
"We just had it rolling, that lineup," Collins said of the second unit against the Pacers. "We were playing well together. Obviously, he (Portland coach Terry Stotts) does have trust in us to go out there and play and I think we proved that through training camp and the preseason and the games so far that the second unit is really good."