WHO: Clippers 105, Rockets 103 (Overtime).
WHAT: At 21-17, Houston sits 7th in the West, tied with Denver and just four games ahead of surging Minnesota. The Rockets dropped their third consecutive game on Sunday, and third of four since returning from the All-Star break last Tuesday. It was a crucial loss, and a game they should have won. In a contest of 24 lead changes and 20 ties, they just couldn’t secure the advantage that was most important when the final buzzer sounded. They blew a slim three-point lead in the final two minutes of the OT, and Kevin Martin missed three chances to win the game in the final minutes. Not a good way to head into a stretch where Houston plays seven of its next eight games on the road, where it is 6-11 this season. Also: the Rockets are just 6-13 this season against Western Conference teams with a .500 or better record.
WHAT HAPPENED?: The Rockets were outrebounded. Again. Wash, rinse, repeat. For the first time since the 1982-1983 season, Houston has been outrebounded in its last 10 games, by an average of 7.6 caroms each contest. So that was reason No. 1 behind the loss. Then, after games upon games of Kyle Lowry proving he deserves the ball when it matters most, Houston turned to Kevin Martin late in OT. Trailing 103-102, Martin missed a jumper just inside the 3-point line. With the same score, after each team exchanged turnovers (Houston’s being caused by – guess who! – Martin after he threw a week sideline inbounds pass that was easily intercepted by Blake Griffin), he missed another jumper, this time again just inside the 3-point line. After Chris Paul missed one of two free throws with 4.9 seconds left, the Rockets again gave the ball to Martin, who promptly missed a long 3 from the top of the key at the buzzer. This was a Kevin Martin who was 6-for-19 before deciding to lower his shooting percentage even more in the last few minutes. He finished the game with 25 points on 6-for-22 shooting in 42 minutes. In 41 minutes, Lowry was 5-for-11, and 2-for-3 from deep, and again bailed the offense out with key tough drives in regulation that kept the Rockets within shouting distance. Yet he was not awarded the ball when it counted. This, to me, was the most puzzling aspect of the game, coach Kevin McHale turning to his most mercurial, inconsistent player and disregarding his toughest, most clutch player. It marred an outstanding effort from Samuel Dalembert, who had 14 points and eight rebounds in the first half after calling a players-only meeting Saturday that many team insiders determined was essentially much ado about nothing, but still left fans curious considering who called for it. He finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, providing great energy we have rarely seen from him this season. But in a game that could have woken up a lot of doubters and assured a lot of fans, Martin failed, and did so miserably. That’s right. In the final 120 seconds of the game, Martin went 0-for-3 with a turnover, managing to botch four possessions completely by himself.
LEE SAVES THE DAY: To be fair, all was not dandy for Lowry, who was manhandled defensively by Paul early and often before McHale sicced Courtney Lee on him late, starting with the final possession of regulation. With the game tied, Lee hounded Paul and used his height (6-foot-5) and length to stay in front and body him deep on the wing, and Paul could not even get up an attempt in time as the buzzer sounded. The move was too little, too late however, as Lowry too often flopped against Paul early in the game, flailing and dropping to the floor in hopes a call would send things the other way. Nope. All it gave Paul was a good look time and time again in the paint, as well as even more of a killer instinct against Lowry. Martin, Scola and Lowry were all guilty of the flopping, putting on an embarrassing display of basketball that was laughable at best and downright disgusting at worst. Bygones. Lee played extremely well, considering he was averaging just 6.6 points on 28 percent shooting (including 22 percent from 3) in his previous five games. Sunday, he hit two clutch shots in a row in regulation, and another big bucket in the OT, coming up big when his counterpart Martin failed to do so. Lee ended up with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting in 29 minutes, as well as some key defense.
ROCKETS’ DIAPER DANDIES UPDATE: Looking for any rebounding help he could seek, McHale turned to Greg Smith in the third quarter, and Terrence Williams early in the first quarter (we’ll get to Terrence later). Smith played 8 minutes and contributed three rebounds, two fouls and a steal and a turnover. It’s still my opinion he needs to play more, though admittedly it would have been hard to find room tonight due to the unexpected powerful contributions of both Dalembert and Luis Scola (16 points, 12 rebounds) in the same game.
A T-WILL SIGHTING: How desperate were the Rockets for rebounding? The little-used and much maligned Terrence Williams was the first man off the bench Sunday. A good rebounder for his position, Williams did alright, but nothing special. He had five points, two rebounds and two assists in 14 minutes, but shot just 1-for-8 from the floor, and some were clean looks. He certainly did nothing to warrant more playing time, aside from a nice laser pass to Scola in the first half, and he didn’t impress if the Rockets were showing him off for a potential trade. McHale did give him an opportunity, though. He just didn’t take full advantage of it.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?: It means that if GM Daryl Morey isn’t trying to pry anything out of his hat this very moment, something is really wrong. This Rockets team is flawed. I, and many, knew it when they went on their dominant January run, and now that they’re playing good, quality teams and no longer cupcakes, they’re being exposed. The Rockets have no go-to offensive player. They don’t rebound. Their defense is subpar. They get nothing inside the paint. They don’t get to the free throw line when it matters. Anything else I’m missing? Sheesh. Just a week ago, it seemed Houston was 20-14 and riding a tidal wave of momentum. Oh, wait, they were. My, how things have drastically changed. I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but there’s so much lack of toughness and poor coaching decision-making I can take.