Rockets Versus Pistons Game Recap: David Nwaba Shines In Close Win

January 23, 2021

With a depleted roster, the Rockets (4-9) entered the Little Caesars Arena on January 22nd to face the Detroit Pistons (3-11). The Rockets, who came into the game on a three-game losing streak, and 1-5 in their last six games, looked to turn things around against a struggling Pistons team.

With John Wall, Danuel House Jr., and Christian Wood out, the Rockets were in for an uphill battle. On the Detroit side, the Pistons have had troubles, sitting at the worst record in the league. Detroit also played without rookie point guard Killian Hayes, who tore his labrum on January 4th against Milwaukee.

The Rockets had yet another close game, despite starting strong. After leading by 20, the Rockets gave up their lead by the end of the third quarter but managed to scrape and claw back to win the game 103-102. Ahead is a breakdown of how the game went.

A Great Start

The Rockets started the game with Eric Gordon, Victor Oladipo, Jae’Sean Tate, PJ Tucker, and DeMarcus Cousins. This marked the Rockets’ tenth starting lineups through the first 14 games of the season. The Pistons, meanwhile, started their usual starting five since the injury of Killian Hayes; Delon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Blake Griffin, Jerami Grant, and Mason Plumlee.

Luckily for the Rockets, unfamiliarity did not cause issues early, as the starters outscored their Pistons counterparts 14-5 through the first four minutes. This was the fastest start the Rockets have had in a game since the trade of James Harden. Mason Plumlee picked up two early fouls, allowing for rookie Isaiah Stewart – who was part of the deal that landed Houston Christian Wood – to check into the game earlier than planned.


Cousins shot just two of eight for the quarter, but PJ Tucker had an unexpected scoring outburst. Tucker scored eight points in the first quarter, leading the Rockets to a 34-21 lead to end the first quarter.

The Rockets capitalized on sloppy play from the Pistons in the first half, turning 14 Pistons turnovers into 15 points. However, a 20 point game quickly became an eight-point Rockets lead, behind solid second-quarter play from former lottery pick Josh Jackson.

Houston shot just 40.4% from the field in the first half but held the Pistons to 36.6%. DeMarcus Cousins shot just 2-11 for the half, but was a key contributor on the boards, collecting 11 rebounds. David Nwaba and Oladipo combined for 16 points as well, while Tucker had a season-high 10 first-half points.

A Rollercoaster Second Half


If you have ever watched the Rockets, you would know that the third quarter is Houston’s Achilles heel. The Rockets came out flat on both ends yet again. However, give credit to the Pistons. Detroit came out of the half and shot 50% from the field, including 7/12 from three. The Pistons ended the quarter with a four-point lead, behind great shooting from Wayne Ellington.

The fourth quarter, however, was a different story. The Rockets, led by David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Eric Gordon, stormed back to take the lead. Big shots down the stretch from Jerami Grant and Blake Griffin kept the Pistons in the game. With 3.4 seconds remaining and down one, the Pistons ran a play for Jerami Grant, who hit a “game-winning” layup. The game ended, or so we thought.

PJ Tucker was called for a foul that occurred after the buzzer sounded. However, after review, it was shown that Grant did not get the shot off in time. Therefore, the foul was waived and so was the bucket. The Rockets managed to pull out a close win in Detroit to stop their three-game losing streak.

The New Normal for Boogie

DeMarcus Cousins has had the worst start to any season of his career. Before this game, Cousins has shot just 29.7% from the field, as well as 25% from three. Cousins cold streak continued, shooting just 2/16 from the field and 1/6 from three. He also had a team-high five turnovers and was a -10 on the game.

The lone bright spot in Cousins’ game has also been the only positive of his season so far. Cousins has by far been the Rockets’ best rebounder, leading the game tonight with 15 rebounds.


It seems like Cousins is having trouble getting back into form, having problems both finishing at the rim and shooting. Boogie ranks in the 0th percentile in eFG% and FG% at the rim. He also ranks in just the 8th percentile in 3P%. Cousins does play better when John Wall shares the court with him, but he still needs a reduced role.

To make him more efficient, the Rockets should look to use him less as a scorer, and more as an off-ball screener. This will help get guys like Ben McLemore, Sterling Brown, and Mason Jones better looks from deep. The Rockets could also look elsewhere, filling the backup center position with a more capable player and use Cousins based on matchup.

The Analytics

In a close game, the Pistons outshined the Rockets analytically. According to, the Rockets beat in Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors” analysis. Despite having lower eFG%, offensive rebounding rate (ORB%), and free throw rates (FTR%), the Rockets won the game on their ability to create turnovers. The Pistons, meanwhile, had quite the game. They finished in the 91st percentile of all games this season in ORB% and 92nd percentile in FTR%. They also were in the 90th percentile this season in three-point accuracy.


Despite the great numbers from the Pistons, again the Rockets own this game on creating turnovers and running in transition. Twenty percent of the Rockets’ plays came in transition, with 85.7% of those plays coming off of steals. This led to 25 points off turnovers for Houston, arguably the difference in a win or a loss. The Rockets should look to replicate this defensive intensity and ability to get into transition moving forward.

The Rockets relied on Eric Gordon, Victor Oladipo, and DeMarcus Cousins to generate offense. Despite shooting 49.8% of the Rockets’ field goal attempts, the trio combined for only 36.9% of the teams’ points. Ben McLemore was an analytics darling, posting an Offensive Rating of 113.2 (team-high) and a Defensive Rating of 70.3 (team-low). This marks yet another game in a fantastic defensive season from Ben McLemore, who was often seen as a liability defensively throughout his career.

Player of the Game

As tempted as I was to make Jae’Sean Tate my player of the game, I have to give credit to David Nwaba for how he stepped up after being moved to the bench. Nwaba finished with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists, as well as having a pair of steals and blocks. Nwaba did a great job of hitting big shots, playing solid defense, and playing with his patented hustle style. He also was the only Rocket who played over ten minutes without a turnover. Nwaba finished second in +/- on the team, with a +12 (only Ben McLemore was higher, with a +17).

I have been very hard on David Nwaba so far this season, particularly because of his lack of shooting ability. Despite going 0/2 from three tonight though, Nwaba showed that the game is more than just three-pointers, and was an important factor in the Rockets pulling out the win.

Final Thoughts

The Rockets entered this game short-handed and still trying to acclimate the newly acquired Victor Oladipo to Coach Stephen Silas’ system. Oladipo had trouble for the second straight game, scoring just 13 points on 16 shot attempts. For the Rockets to get it going this season, they must find a way to integrate Oladipo into the offense. Otherwise, it will be a very long season in Houston.

The Rockets saw big games from Ben McLemore, Eric Gordon, Sterling Brown, and Jae’Sean Tate. With Oladipo and Cousins struggling, the Rockets’ role players carried the load. The Rockets bench outscored the Pistons bench 37-32, and PJ Tucker had a season-high 15 points. Jae’Sean Tate led the way defensively with three steals and three blocks, and Eric Gordon delivered many clutch moments to end the game.

Houston did a great job of getting players open for shots, despite them not falling, as seen in the video above. As seen in the video, the Rockets got a lot of threes off off-ball screens and pick and pop scenarios. However, they also did a good job of drawing defenders into the paint to open up space for their shooters in the corners. They also swung the ball often, generating a lot of open looks.

Houston did a great job defensively, holding the Pistons to 37.8% from the field. Despite this, they did not do a great job getting out to shooters, allowing the Pistons to shoot 46.9% from three. They did a great job at keeping Jerami Grant and Blake Griffin at bay, but could not slow down Wayne Ellington, who scored 18 points on 6/10 from three. The Rockets have a habit of letting rotational guards light them up from three, something they will need to fix.

The next game is against the Mavericks in Dallas, who will also be coming off a back to back. Oladipo has not played in back-to-back games yet this season, so it is unknown whether or not he plans to play. If Oladipo is out, the Rockets should give Mason Jones- who played just three minutes- more time to run.

The Rockets will look to avoid a repeat of their last matchup against the Mavericks, where Tim Hardaway Jr. dropped 30 off the bench. Houston finally ends its losing streak, but there is a lot of adjustments needed going into the next stretch of games.

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