Kyle Lowry's late heroics were not enough to lift an uninspired Rockets team on Wednesday against rival Utah.
WHO: Jazz 103, Rockets 91
WHAT: A lackadaisical performance cost the Rockets, as they now sit tied with Denver and Dallas for 6th in the West. All three have identical 32-26 records. All are 1 1/2 games ahead of Utah (in 9th place) and 2 games ahead of Phoenix (in 10th). The Rockets play Phoenix on Friday, a game that now stands big since they dropped a biggie to Utah on Wednesday, before entertaining a home-and-home set against Denver on Sunday and Monday. With just four more home games remaining in the regular season – including Friday’s tilt – and 4 more road games, nothing is assured just yet, though it’s no doubt a win Wednesday could have come very close to locking up a playoff berth for the Rockets and giving them another sigh of relief. The loss put a end to the Rockets’ four-game winning streak (all of which came on the road) and represented just the 9th defeat in 29 games this season at Toyota Center.
WHAT HAPPENED?: Let’s be honest: The Rockets were due for a clunker. They had been playing admirably magnificent the last few weeks, complete with sensational wins against the best of the best, so it was only a matter of time before they came back down to earth. On Wednesday, they were simply a step slow, simple as that. They were lethargic defensively and sloppy offensively, failing to rotate hard and taking poor shots. They made their share of runs, cutting a 12-point first-half deficit to 2 before it ballooned back to 10 by halftime, and then cutting a 16-point deficit with 2:50 left in the third quarter to 4 with 6:12 left in the fourth. But it was never enough. Utah was too potent (51.3% shooting; 42.9% on 3s; 23 assists on 40 field goals) and the Rockets were not (35.6% shooting; 20% on 3s). From the opening tip, Utah played like it was fighting for its playoff life, and it was. But there was no excuse for the Rockets’ lackluster effort, as they’re still within shot of homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. The bottom line: Utah played as if the game meant something, and Houston did not.
McHALE FAILS: As poorly as the Rockets played – and they played horrendously – Kevin McHale coached just as badly. It can be argued that his poor rotations cost the game. Against a Jazz team boasting a trio of mobile bigs in Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors – against a Utah team that is relentless on the glass and in the paint – McHale stubbornly played slow, plodding, defense-challenged Luis Scola big minutes (33) and did not do the same for 6-foot-11, shot-blocking space-eaters Marcus Camby (25) and Samuel Dalembert (10). So it should come as no surprise that Scola’s man Millsap had a field day, with 21 points and 7 rebounds. I will never understand McHale’s unwillingness to utilize Dalembert and Camby together for long stretches. Both are competent offensively and the Rockets’ top defensive bigs, and for a team that is subpar in rebounding and only average defensively, they’re exactly what the doctor ordered. But, I digress. McHale also waited too long to stick with Kyle Lowry (who had burned the Jazz for 30+ points the last time these two met at Toyota Center) on an off night for Goran Dragic (3-for-13 shooting, 4 turnovers). The Rockets played their most inspired in the fourth quarter, and guess who led the charge? That’s right, Lowry, who took it upon himself to carry the team, cutting a 12-point deficit in the quarter to 4, with 14 points and 3 assists in the period, with the crowd chanting “Lowry! Lowry!” for his competitive fire and grit. That’s all gravy, but not when you consider he only played 6 minutes in the first half. The benefit of coaching a team without All-Stars is that you have no obligation to cater to anyone, so when someone is off, it’s easier to pull him out and sub, ESPECIALLY with a deep squad like the Rockets. Yet McHale continues to ride Scola at the most inopportune of times, and this was one game where Dragic could have been relieved earlier in the game, and Lowry could have taken over sooner rather than later. Not McHale’s best night. Oh, and if I ever see Chase Budinger guarding Millsap one more time …
BOMBS AWAY: One game after I praised the Rockets’ penchant for killing opponents on 3s and limiting their deep looks at the same time, Houston got burned there. Utah (one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league, and last in 3s attempted) connected on 6 of 14 triples, and the Rockets mustered just 4 of 20 shooting from 3. On a night when the Rockets were attacking the rim and actually getting the calls (25 of 29 on free throws), it would have behooved them to stop shooting from distance and keep slashing, particularly when that would have likely meant foul trouble for Utah’s bigs. The Rockets are a good shooting team, but when the jumper isn’t falling, they also have the talent and players who can get to the rim and make plays. Hopefully they’ll realize that before it’s all said and done.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: It means Friday’s game against the Suns, who are also battling for their playoff lives, looms pivotal. If Houston could have won Wednesday, it would have all but clinched a postseason berth. Instead, it will have to wait. I won’t harp on the loss too much. As I said, a clunker was expected. It’s human nature. It happens, and let’s face it, the Rockets put themselves in a position where a loss like this is not too costly, like we imagined a few weeks ago it could be. The good news is the Rockets have developed a knack this season for responding strongly after a tough defeat. I expect nothing less against the Suns.