Posted Jan 30 2011 7:00PM
The Rockets find themselves on the outside looking in. Outside, down the street and limping. A Houston team that began the season believing it could be a serious contender begins the week 11th in the Western Conference and closer to the 13th-place Los Angeles Clippers than Portland in eighth.
At 22-27, the Rockets might be better off preparing for the lottery. Still, there's something to be gained over the next 2 1/2 months that can turn 2010-11 into a success. A relative success.
"We're still fighting to make the playoffs," veteran forward Shane Battier said. "We're not giving up on that yet, despite our record. Every team is different. I take last year for example: No Yao, we're small, undermanned, injured the whole year and to go 42-40 was a helluva year. One of the best years of my career, a year I'll always remember and we missed the playoffs.
"While most people were disappointed, I was proud of our effort. You want to maximize the potential of each group. I don't know the potential of this group. I really don't. I can't give you a number, but I know when we're playing up to that potential and we're not."
It hasn't happened nearly enough. The Rockets, without Yao Ming for another season, have little margin for error. They start 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes at center. They have to play frenetic. They get have to get up and down the floor. Only four other teams shoot more 3-pointers than the Rockets.
They're not what they envisioned they would be.
"They play like Phoenix now," Dallas guard Jason Terry said.
The Suns, in the West finals just last year, are in much the same boat as Houston when it comes to salvaging this season. Phoenix sits one spot ahead of Houston in the standings. Memphis, the Clippers and Golden State are also in that group trying to make a closing push.
The Rockets are in this position because of bad luck more than anything else. Houston is closing in on more than 100 player games lost to injury this season, extending a triple-digit streak that extends back to at least 2003-04. Six times over the last seven years, the franchise has eclipsed 150 and three times crossed 200.
Yao has only played five games in the last two seasons, and his career is in jeopardy after the latest ankle injury. Aaron Brooks, the lightning quick point guard and last season's Most Improved Player, has missed half the Rockets' games and is still working his way back into shape.
"Over the past year you can definitely say we've been snakebit with the injury bug," said Kevin Martin, the league's 11th-leading scorer. "It happens. Nobody wants to be injured. Yao doesn't want to be injured. I saw all the hard work he put in coming into the season and just to go down the way that he did is unfortunate. That's just what we're going through around here with the injuries, it's something you can't help but it definitely hurts your team."
Navigating through their woes and reaching the postseason would mean something.
"It'll be kinda how Portland views it -- it's a winning situation," Martin added. "We had high expectations, but we're missing 7-6. That makes a big difference. The playoffs would be a step in the right direction, but we wouldn't just be content with that.
"We have the talent, but we have some holes to fill. One of them is missing our big guy. That's a big hole to fill. All we can do is play basketball and see what happens."
As bleak as their postseason chances appear, the Rockets have been one of the league's better second-half teams in recent years. A surge at the right time -- they've got five of six at home after the current four-game road trip ends -- can get the Rockets back in the mix.
It gets back to playing to their potential with the guys they've got.
"We need to realize who we were," Battier said. "We're a small team -- the smallest team in the league -- we struggle on the defensive boards, we struggle on defense, so we have to play fast and together and smart to maximize who we are.
"At times we've got some great wins, on the road at Atlanta, on the road at Boston. On the other hand we've lost a lot of bad games, especially at home, we just haven't closed out. We're still searching for our basketball nirvana."
And the playoffs.
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