NEW YORK -- Austin Rivers' eyes widened as soon as he heard the word "defense." After the Houston Rockets' 123-116 loss to the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center, the guard did not hesitate to say that getting stops has been a problem.
"We're not playing any defense," Rivers said. "Guys are scoring, getting whatever they want."
The charitable view is that the Rockets were merely victims of unsustainably hot shooting on Friday. The Nets shot 19-for-32 from deep, while the Rockets went a dismal 12-for-48, including a a combined 3-for-27 from James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon. If the basketball gods were not on their side, though, then this was not the first time.
Houston entered the game with the league's best offense, per Cleaning The Glass, but ranked 28th on defense, allowing 117.6 points per 100 possessions. Opponents were shooting extremely well (41.5 percent) on non-corner 3s, which could be random, but they were also shooting a lot of them -- only two teams had given them up more frequently -- which is probably not. The Rockets barely escaped D.C. with a 159-158 victory on Wednesday, a game in which the Washington Wizards shot 20-for-36 from 3-point range and had an offensive rating of 141.1, per NBA.com. (Brooklyn's offensive rating on Friday was 110.8, a good number but not an insane one, roughly equal to the Milwaukee Bucks' mark on the season, which ranks sixth in the league.)
Kendrick Perkins, the bruising-center-turned-ESPN-analyst, tweeted that Nets coach Kenny Atkinson outcoached Houston's Mike D'Antoni. He also dusted off some well-worn criticisms of the two-time Coach of the Year.
"All the Rockets give a damn about is offense and their defense giving up 140.5 points in the last 2 games," Perkins wrote. "D'Antoni system won't bring Houston a Championship anytime soon!"
Rivers said that it is "not on the coaches. They lay the foundation out for us. Our defense has been—I mean, I don't know what else to say. It hasn't been what we need it to be. Not close."
The Rockets will tell you that recent practices have been mostly dedicated to defense. Forward Danuel House told CBS Sports that D'Antoni has been more vocal on the subject than he was last season, reminding them that the goal is to be a championship-caliber team and, if they are sloppy early in the season, it "is going to hurt us later."
"If a possession gets out of hand, he's like, 'We gotta defend!'" House said. "He's more energetic on the defensive end than he is on the offensive end because he said offensively we're talented. He's like, 'We don't need to worry about offense, we're going to score. We need to worry about defending.'"
Rivers said he was not worried about Harden's 2-for-14 night from deep, nor was he worried about Westbrook or Gordon missing shots. (Gordon is shooting 28.6 percent from the field on the season and 19.6 percent from 3-point range through five games, nightmarish numbers.)
"Whether or not they're hitting or not, we can still win games," Rivers said. "You know what I mean? We're deep enough. We got enough. Like, if we don't defend—if you're not hitting and you're not defending, you're not going to win. Everything right now is defense. We gotta be better defensively. I don't know. That's it."
Clint Capela played only 20 minutes, as D'Antoni leaned on Tyson Chandler for 15 minutes and went small for the rest of the game. D'Antoni spoke reverentially about the 37-year-old Chandler's defensive acumen and didn't mince words about Capela.
"It wasn't a good 20 minutes," D'Antoni said. "To get 22, you gotta play a good 20. Bottom line, that wasn't good."
Houston started slowly on defense last season, eventually waiving Carmelo Anthony and rehiring assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who is now with the New Orleans Pelicans, to address the issue. "Like last year, I'm concerned," D'Antoni said, but he thinks that they'll improve when they get their legs under them. He said they "weren't sharp" and "looked fatigued" in Brooklyn.
"A lot of it is just energy," he said. "Our energy level is not the greatest right now."
Rivers and Harden lamented that they have repeatedly built double-digit leads and given them up. "We get relaxed, we get comfortable," Harden said, but downplayed it by saying that "our heads aren't down" and they just need to communicate better.
"I don't know, it's early," Rivers said. "I don't know how much I can really say. But it's just not where we need it to be, so we gotta band together as a unit and just start to put a better effort out there. Defensively, we're hurting ourselves right now."
Broad conclusions should not be drawn in early November. As frustrated as he seemed, even Rivers said that he believes they will "figure it out" and "get it together." There have been some positive signs early in the Westbrook era -- the faster pace, the better defensive rebounding, Westbrook getting to the rim -- and it's difficult to imagine that Harden and Gordon will keep shooting so poorly. If Houston is going to get where it wants to go, though, it cannot continue to alternate between looking like a versatile, tough, locked-in defensive team and one that isn't fully connected.
"Every game is going to be a dogfight if you do that," Rivers said.