Where’s the toughness, Houston?


The closest thing the Rockets have to an enforcer is point guard Kyle Lowry. That's not a good thing.



When Luis Scola ate a mouthful of Kevin Love’s NIKE nearly two weeks ago on the floor of the Target Center, the proverbial revenge blow that usually occurs in such a situation never came from the Houston Rockets.

In the “Grown Man” world that is the NBA, one is led to wonder if the team not only has an enforcer, but to what level of importance there is in having such a player on its roster.

The Rockets are no different than any other pro sports team in that they’ve been disrespected their fair share throughout their tenure. Whether it’s from the days of Vernon Maxwell confronting Charles Barkley (of the then-Phoenix Suns) over a hard foul on Hakeem Olajuwon in the ’94 playoffs, or a more recent Ron Artest ejection after taking a Kobe Bryant elbow to the neck against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the ’09 playoffs.  Among the many incidents, the Love-Scola “stomping” incident seems to stand out from others in that it left such an overwhelming feel of defeat after the game was over in Minnesota.

A feeling that still lingers in many of Houston fans’ minds when hearing the name “Kevin Love,” public enemy No. 1, at least for the time being.

To make matters worse, they lost to the Wolves 100-91 that night, giving Minnesota an edge it has not relinquished in the season series between the two teams.

While the Rockets’ bench, plus Scola, was called for technical fouls in the aftermath of Love’s stomp, it was more in the nature of getting a bad call by the referee (proven by Scola’s technical foul being rescinded).  In fact, the official who missed the call apologized to Scola and the Rockets the next time he saw them, for missing the blatant foul that proceeded the play AND the stomp. Still, normally a disrespect of that magnitude has players ready to duke it out, in which case it’s routinely broken up before it even begins. At minimal, a player would confront the guilty opponent face-to-face in a manner worthy of a meaningful technical.

It seems to be the way of the NBA, as teams are praised for such mental tactics.

For a perfect example, you need to look back no further than March 18 of the Rockets’ 2010-11 season. While hosting the Boston Celtics in the Toyota Center, former Rocket center Chuck Hayes (now a member of the Sacramento Kings) engaged in a heated back and forth of unsportsmanlike words with power forward Kevin Garnett of the Celtics. As the bumping and jarring continued, an eventual double-technical foul was called between the two players, after already being separated once before.

In a later possession, the shorter (6’6″) Hayes ferociously snatched the ball away from Garnett (6’10”) as Houston fans roared in appreciation.

On the flip side of the Minnesota debacle, Houston torched a better Boston team with a final score of 93-74. Boston eventually finished with the third best record in the East (56-26), only behind the Bulls (62-20) and Heat (58-24).

Hayes had this to say in an interview after the game: “It was just an intensity game and what they like to do is bully you and get in your head to try to make you think you can’t play with them,” said Hayes, while recalling the game’s emotional turning point. “We just hit the bully back and see if he can take a punch. [Garnett and I] got into a verbal altercation and I let him know I’m not standing for it. Then the next play they tried to iso him on the block and that was the wrong time to do it because I had so much adrenaline rushing I was determined not to let him get a score – not even giving up a shot.”

Interestingly enough, when looking at the league leaders in technical fouls this season, you have to turn quite a few pages before you find a Rockets player. At the top you’ll find two championship- winning, bulldog centers in Kendrick Perkins of the Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly of the Celtics’ 2008 championship team) with eight and Tyson Chandler (formerly of the Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 championship team) of the New York Knicks with seven. Before eventually finding Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry with the only non-team technical foul by anyone on the Rockets’ current roster, you cross a top-ten list with three other former champions’ names on it, those being Kobe Bryant (with 5 technical fouls), Rajon Rondo (5) and Stephen Jackson (5), who have all won a ring and are known to be respected, hard-nosed individuals.

While the technical foul statistic gives you a small aspect in which to measure these players’ passion, the bigger truth lies in the transformation of last season’s championship-winning Mavericks roster. Before acquiring Chandler from the Charlotte Bobcats to the start the season, many considered the Mavs (and their star player Dirk Nowitzki) to be lacking the toughness of a true contender. The attitude embedded in Chandler’s demeanor sparked the team to its first championship.

Since Chandler was signed and traded to away to the Knicks, the Mavs (currently 19-11) seem to be who they were before his presence entered their locker room. Despite being the reigning champions, from season’s start they have been considered inferior to teams such as the Thunder (22-7), Heat (23-7) and Bulls (24-7), teams with fiery personalities and no-nonsense aggressors who are willing to do anything to win.

What defines tough in the NBA? It varies according to different people, but one thing is that champions and true contenders boast toughness, a junkyard dog, win-at-all-costs mentality that the Rockets have not seen since Artest.

It’s important to understand the difference between tough, physical play or reaction, and just being flat-out dirty. It is also just as important to understand the mental impact of literally letting a team walk over you, as the Rockets let the Wolves do in the aforementioned game. Throwing fists is never the answer, on or off the court, but there’s a vast middle ground of appropriate ways to handle such an occurrence. What the answer is not is what the Rockets did following the Scola incident: Nothing. Their silence spoke volumes.

Somebody on Houston’s roster needs to find that middle ground. The Rockets don’t need a dirty player. They don’t need to stoop to the level of a player stepping on somebody or someone resorting to physical violence. Basically, they just need somebody to feel the way that Hayes spoke of after making Rockets fans proud that night a few years ago against the Celtics.

Especially if their playoff hopes come to fruition.