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Rockets reeling in every aspect early in 2015-16

Houston, mired in a four-game losing streak, looks listless and confused as it looks for answers

POSTED: Dec 2, 2015 5:24 PM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


Celtics vs. Rockets

Isaiah Thomas scores 23 points as the Boston Celtics cruise to a 111-95 win over the slumping Houston Rockets on Monday night.

— At this point, the question about the Rockets is whether they'll strike oil or stumble across a pit of coal.

The bottom is down there someplace, but there's no guarantee that they've hit it.

This time it was sloppy ball handling, poor offensive execution and lousy transition defense.

In other words, just like all the other times in a season getting quickly out of control.

A 111-95 home loss to the Celtics Monday night was familiar like a late night at a karaoke bar where the air is filled with all the golden oldies being sung out of tune.

-- "We've got to stay together."

-- "This is never easy."

-- "It's early."

Pick a member of the chorus. They all know the words.

Trouble is, nobody seems to have the first clue about what to do about any of it.

It's bad right now.

– Houston's Corey Brewer

The Rockets are a team that won 56 games last season without ever losing more than two in a row. Now they've already had a three-game losing streak, followed by the current four-game skid and, even worse, they're making a habit of getting blown out, perhaps giving up. The second half at Miami, the first half at home against Dallas, surrendering a 32-13 third quarter to the Celtics.

"I wouldn't say full effort all the time, no," said coach Kevin McHale. "We're hanging our heads. Things aren't going our way and we hang our head. We haven't put together really good basketball all year long."

Can anybody remember the last time a team that had advanced as far as the conference finals less than six months earlier, fell this far this fast without suffering a major injury to a key player?

Have Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Kostas Papanikolaou ever been missed so much by anyone outside their own families? Should the acclimation to new point guard Ty Lawson be quite so difficult?

The Rockets are not just 4-7 on the season, but 2-5 at home in the Toyota Center, where boos are becoming a regular part of the fan experience. Of those seven losses, five of them have come by margins of 20, 20, 20, 18 and 16.

In case anyone's wondering, the winless Sixers come to town on Nov. 27.

"The second half was how we've been playing all year," said Corey Brewer. "We haven't played any defense, haven't moved the ball. It's bad right now. For us, we've got to look at ourselves in the mirror. We've got to come out here and we've got to play together and we've got to play the right way. And we've got to play harder. Other teams are coming in here and playing harder than us and they are kicking our butts."

Other teams are also noticing that the Rockets have a way of coming unraveled like a cheap sweater. One lazy pass leads to a turnover that leads to a fast break bucket at the other end that leads to one player barking at another player that leads to a kennel full of howling and back-biting right out on the court.

There's negativity all around. Out there, in here. We have to stay away from it.

– Houston's Dwight Howard

"There's negativity all around," said Dwight Howard. "Out there, in here. We have to stay away from it. We have to be positive. That's my job."

It should be the job of Howard and James Harden as co-leaders, yet neither is truly comfortable in the role of fully shouldering the responsibility. Harden is nonpareil in his brilliance at the offensive end, but has fallen back into many of his old defensive shortcomings. Howard plays confidently and aggressively at defense and rebounding, but at no point in his career has he ever been a tall flagpole to rally around.

The criticism and the fingers have already pointed at McHale for his inability to pull the Rockets out of the ditch, though he's changed lineups, tried different tactics, done virtually everything but consult a Ouija board. A year ago McHale guided a team that played without Howard for 41 games to the Southwest Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, then pushed them all the way into June.

Has this team suddenly tuned him out and, if so, why? McHale, who is in the first season of a new three-year contract, is the winningest coach by percentage in franchise history. In his four years in Houston, he's established a reputation as a players' coach, one that cajoles, relates, inspires and does not grab at the spotlight to bask. If he is being rolled under the bus by anyone inside the locker room, it would only be to cover up their own deficiencies.

The Rockets' holes are obvious. Backdoor cuts and dribble drives get easy buckets. A defense that ranked sixth in the NBA even with Howard missing half the schedule last season now is 29th, ahead of only the broken Pelicans. Ball movement by opponents produces open looks and good, makeable shots.

Sure, the Rockets still live and die by the 3-pointer, but it is not the sheer volume of long-range launching that is a problem. After all, Golden State ranks No. 2. It's the way the Rockets are failing to move the ball to get and take good 3-point shots. Too many times they're just going 1-on-1 and letting fly. The Harden-Lawson combo has been a bad fit at both ends of the floor.

The Rockets have fallen into the habit of letting one or two bad possessions snowball until it starts an avalanche. The Celtics fed off the on-court sniping and squabbling that resulted in a 34-point turnaround from the middle of the second quarter to the end of the third.

"I think every game that we've lost it's been something like that where they go on these crazy runs," Harden said. "It's kind of hard to get out of them. I don't know what the case is ... but you have to fight through it. It's pretty bad, but the good thing about it is it's still early in the season."

Until one day it isn't. And that's a sadder old song.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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