Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable.
Unreal. Amazing. Incredible. Whatever adjective you want to use, the Houston Rockets are falling apart right before our eyes. And it may now be too late to recover.
It seemed not long that the Rockets were cruising, sitting comfortably in 6th in the West and flying high following an outstanding 4-0 road trip that included dramatic wins over the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. They were overcoming deficits with ease, attacking opponents, playing with a distinguished swagger and there was even talk that homecourt advantage through the first round of the playoffs could be in play. That’s how good things were for the red and silver.
Consider all that now just a pipe dream.
Fast forward a week and change later, and the Rockets’ playoff hopes, barring some magical run late that would have to include wins at Dallas and at Miami, are all but dead, seemingly left for 9th in the West for the third. straight. year. Oh, how fun. Another pick just outside of the lottery is what this team needs, right? Another year of “good, but not good enough.” Another year of being Malcolm in the middle. I’ll stress that the Rockets are still very much in control of their own destiny – winning all five of their remaining games would certainly assure them a spot in the playoffs. But their recent play and the fact that they have made life really, really tough means that a betting man would have them watching the postseason for the third straight year.
That’s what Houston faces following a horrific collapse this weekend in its home-and-home against the Denver Nuggets. See, the Nuggets entered the games in 7th and the Rockets were in 8th. Houston could have all but reserved its playoff spot with a win in at least one of the games, which would have given them the tiebreaker against the Nuggets as well as the 7th spot in the West with a handful of games remaining. Instead, it folded. Laid down. Backed down. After surrendering 101-86 on Sunday, the Rockets were bitten again, this time 105-102, on Monday. Now, with five games left in the regular season, Houston is 32-29, tied with Phoenix for 8th (while not owning the tiebreaker) and just a half-game ahead of Utah for 8th (against which it also does not have the tiebreaker). The losses to Denver also broke a tie for 7th with the Nuggets, whom now do own the tiebreaker over the Rockets, as the Nuggets now own a two-game advantage over Houston for the 7th spot. Funny how two bad losses can change the course of an entire season.
You can cite the usual suspects behind the Rockets’ failure on Monday. They stubbornly kept shooting 3s, even though they had shot just a notch above 20% the last three games. After a first quarter in which they led 32-21 and boasted a shocking 20-10 advantage in points in the paint, the Rockets retreated back to their ways, jacking up 3s and allowing Denver right back into the game. The Nuggets shot 9-for-14 on free throws in the first half to the Rockets’ 1-for-1, and that was all you needed to know. The Nuggets – after scoring 60 points in the paint Sunday – scored 50 Monday, and finished with a 20-for-29 advantage in free throws to Houston’s 14-for-17. Rockets fans wearing rose-colored glasses will tell you that’s due to bad officiating, and that was some of the case, especially in the second half. But the real reason is the Rockets hoisted often from behind the arc, missing 21 of 29 triples, which led to long rebounds, which then lead to breakaways. More importantly, they wasted precious possessions in what was ultimately a three-point game.
I don’t want to make it sound like Denver blew out the Rockets for the second night in a row. In fact, the Rockets were right there in the end. They played spirited. They fought, for most of the game. They were energetic. They were aware. They were matching blow for blow until they just wore down with the Nuggets’ relentless attack to get to the basket and score inside or get to the free-throw line. But what’s mystifying is why Samuel Dalembert, who sat most of the second half in favor of Patrick Patterson, was not on the court in the fourth quarter. All he had done through the first 2 1/2 quarters was compile 9 rebounds and 7 blocks, a season-high. In fact, it was his determined defense in the first half, while his teammates were busy misfiring from long range, that kept the Nuggets at bay in the paint and enabled Houston to still hold a seven-point halftime lead. Yet he was on the bench when it mattered most, and then we wonder why Denver completely manhandled Houston in the paint en route to earning a key win. It can be argued that his absence, more than anything else, in the second half cost the Rockets the playoffs. Even with Marcus Camby sidelined due to back pain, Dalembert was more than enough to hold the fort down, showing as much in a brilliant first half, and yet he was penalized for his achievement. If there has been one Rocket misused this entire season, it has been Dalembert. And that’s inexcusable for a team that desperately lacks in the rebounding and defense departments.
The Rockets simply have to start disciplining themselves. Yes, they’re young and impressionable, but there are veterans on this club who need to lend direction. This is where guys like Kyle Lowry, Camby and Courtney Lee need to step up and have their voices heard. Resorting back to shooting ill-advised 3s after you were having such great success in the paint is something that should not happen. For the fourth straight game, the Rockets failed to shoot straight (42%) while also failing to prevent shot-making (47%). It’s like Houston loves to make things difficult. Right now, that’s costing them, as well as Kevin McHale’s penchant for keeping his best rebounder and shotblocker on the bench at the most inopportune times.
I’ll still hold out hope, no matter how slim. But the Rockets blew a wonderful chance this weekend, and I can’t help but to think that will come back and haunt them. For some odd reason, they’ve let up off the gas at the wrong time. And while I’d like to think that no matter happens, this will prove a significant learning lesson for the youngsters, let’s face it: I think this team will look drastically different next season, so I’m not sure how much it will actually help. What I do know is I hope McHale gets a clue as to how and when to use players, and I hope the Rockets start understanding that living by jump shots more often than not means you’ll certainly die by them. Ironically enough, I read a column on Grantland.com this morning stating how dangerous of a playoff foe the Rockets could be because they “don’t beat themselves.”
I think you’d have a hard time getting a Rockets fan to buy into that line of thinking at this point.