Marcus Camby and the Rockets are still in fine position and in control of their destiny even after poor defeats to Utah and Phoenix.
BY: MICHAEL GUTIERREZ
The Houston Rockets took a beating in their last two games against desperate, playoff-hungry Utah and Phoenix, leaving a question to be asked: what exactly did the losses mean?
On Wednesday night, the Rockets were flat-out, out hustled and outplayed (103-91) by a good, but starless, roster in the Jazz. Every time the Rockets made any kind of run, the Jazz had a bigger and better one to counter. For Utah, which was sitting not far behind the Rockets for a playoff berth, it was a must-win. For the Rockets, as huge as the opportunity was to gain distance, it was just that, and not a “do-or-die” match, as they remained seventh in the West.
However, their following defeat to Phoenix on Friday opened some eyes. Again, the Rockets were poor in effort and shot badly, with a defense that again allowed strong percentages for the opponent. It was another opportunity for the Rockets to gain ground on a team too close for comfort in the standings, and they failed. It even cost them a precious spot, dropping them to eighth in the West.
Going back to last season, the Rockets faltered when it mattered most. They would lose crucial games against the Heat, Sixers, Kings and Hornets as the postseason neared, ending up being the team sitting just outside the top eight in the West when it was all said and done. They finished the last 10 games with a 5-5 record, which wasn’t enough to beat out the surging Memphis Grizzlies (6-4).
So, naturally, seeing outcomes like the ones against Utah and Phoenix bring back bad memories many Houston fans would like to forget.
Still, it’s easy to forget the Rockets are not long removed from a dramatic 4-0 road trip that saw wins over the Bulls and Lakers. On that trip, they started and finished strong, closing out games with a passion. It’s also important to remember they’ve stayed afloat with not only a (struggling) Kevin Martin on the sidelines, but with their team leader in Kyle Lowry just now getting back after missing 15 games due to a bacterial infection. The result has led many to side with one player versus another at the point and shooting guard positions. Whether it’s Courtney Lee versus Martin at the shooting guard, or Goran Dragic versus Lowry at the point, the truth is Lowry’s, and Martin’s pending, return should instead be looked at as added weaponry. Head coach Kevin McHale is going to play the hot hand, meaning, in their return, if they don’t outshine the emerging Dragic and Lee, they won’t be in the game when it counts, period. The team’s whole philosophy of winning off purely team effort, rather than relying on a consistent individual player, has an increased chance of happening with Lowry and (yes) a healthy Martin. The benefit of having the depth the Rockets do is if Martin (who was once a top scorer in the league) is having a poor shooting night, he doesn’t need to be played. McHale has already sat Martin in bulk minutes, and all evidence shows he’ll be willing to do the same in wake of Martin’s return.
With the emergence of Lee (averaging 14.2 points as a starter this season) and Dragic (18.2 points), and with Lowry working his way back in to form, if anything, the Rockets are just that much more tough to beat. As great as it is to see the backups stepping in to starter form, they’ll need rest if they are to continue their high level of play.
Also, with the additions of Marcus Camby, Chandler Parsons and Samuel Dalembert over the offseason and at the trade deadline, the Rockets now boast a roster capable of playing solid defense, giving them a chance to stay in tough, grind it out type of games. It’s a quality the Rockets have earned, and has given the team the balance they lacked a year ago, when they fell short of the eighth and final seed. After barely missing the playoffs being ranked 22nd in points allowed last season, three spots higher at 19th should be just enough for their fans to expect a better result, as opposed to the two previous disappointing seasons.
Looking ahead to the seven remaining regular season games, four are against above-.500 teams. With no margin for error, the Rockets will have to determine their own fate by winning the game at hand, rather than depending on what other teams do. With the ill-timed defeats to Utah and Phoenix, they no longer have the luxury of sparing a win or two. While the race is too close for any guarantees on Houston’s behalf, don’t mistake this season’s roster with last year’s, no matter how much the recent losses bring forth nightmares of an inability to close out the season strong.
Houston has an opportunity still to do just that, with a home-and-home set against Denver looming Sunday and Monday, as well as upcoming tilts against Dallas and Miami. The Rockets still have a chance at proving they’ve turned the page.