WHO: Suns 112, Rockets 105
WHAT: A lackadaisical performance cost the Rockets on Wednesday. Another uninspired clunker Friday against Phoenix has raised a plethora of concerns. At 32-27, Houston is now in 8th in the West, just a game ahead of the Suns for that spot. The Rockets are a game behind Denver, whom they play next on Sunday and Monday, for 7th. Seven games remain in the regular season, and after a stirring 4-0 road trip that seemed to lighten their load, the Rockets are all of a sudden hanging on for their dear playoff lives.
WHAT HAPPENED?: It’s been a mystifying trend of late: The Rockets are having more and more trouble putting the ball in the hole. The last two losses against Utah and Phoenix have been because they have not shot straight. Through most of this season, the Rockets’ lack of defense and porous rebounding were often causes of defeat. But lately, poor shooting (particularly in the second half) has been to blame, and that was again the case against the Suns. After shooting 47.7% in the first half, the Rockets were absolutely miserable in the second, missing 20 of their first 26 second-half shots and ending up with a 37% second-half percentage. For the second straight night, Houston was horrid from 3, hitting on just 4 of 19, and compound that with its inability to defend the pick and roll and it resulted in another loss, now 0-2 on the homestand heading to Denver. Yes, the Rockets’ defense lacked badly at times Friday, but it’s the poor shooting that has cost them twice now within the last three days. And these are games you can’t afford to lose; games that significantly take away the luster from road wins at Chicago and the Lakers. Phoenix, meanwhile, was masterful shooting the ball, hitting on 49% of its field goals, 44% of its 3s and 84% of its free throws.
CAMBY STARTS STRONG, ENDS BADLY: I don’t think Marcus Camby could have played a better half of basketball like he did in the first 24 minutes Friday. He was simply dominant, bringing back flashes of his former self as a Raptor and Nugget, with 10 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. He was a beast inside, attacking the glass, controlling loose balls and leading way to where the Rockets could enjoy a four-point halftime advantage. But the weird thing was how ineffective Camby was in the second half, though it must be mentioned that Phoenix packed the paint hard in an effort to keep the Rockets away from the boards and easy buckets. It worked. Not only were the Rockets forced to fire ill-advised jumpers, but Camby only mustered 4 points in the second half. That’s right. No blocks. No rebounds. No assists. No steals. He was shut down. The unfortunate thing is the Rockets found no counter to the Suns’ adjustment, and were content to keep firing away from the outside instead of finding a way to keep their interior prowess alive against a Phoenix team that lacks in the paint.
MENTOR VS. PUPIL: Friday provided another matchup of teacher versus student, with Steve Nash going up against former backup Goran Dragic. Dragic had a stellar game, with 22 points, 7 assists and 2 steals, but it was his defense against the pick-and-roll that proved fatal. Though scoreless in the first half, Nash finished with 18 points and 10 assists, including a slew of late clutch buckets by getting into the lane off the pick and roll and either shooting a runner or dishing off to an open Marcin Gortat or Jared Dudley. If anything, the game taught us this: For as much progress as Dragic has made this year, he still has a long way to go, particularly defensively, and it’s that very reason that the Rockets should be reluctant to make Kyle Lowry the sacrificial lamb.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: It means pressure is building on the Rockets, quickly. That’s now two straight losses at home, to teams they should have beaten and who are looking up at them in the playoff race. And it only gets harder. There’s a home-and-home set against the Nuggets beginning Sunday in Denver. Then there’s a game against the Mavs, who are also looking to just survive and get into the playoffs. It’s not good, especially when you consider that the Rockets have failed to answer the desperation of teams like the Jazz and Suns. At the most critical time of the year, Houston has let its guard down, and its costing it precious games and potential advancement up the standings. Seven games remain, and the team is four wins from GM Daryl Morey’s comfort zone of 36 wins for likely playoff eligibility. Sometimes, the Rockets just don’t understand how to make it easy on themselves.