HOUSTON - 15 games and four weeks. That’s all that remains of the Rockets’ regular season. A campaign that began amid ample amounts of both excitement and uncertainty now hinges upon more of the same as fans wait to see what Houston’s players and coaches can cobble together over the course of the season’s final month.
To be sure, the two weeks that preceded this crucial stretch have not exactly borne witness to the Rockets at their best. The club has been inconsistent and plagued with a recent rash of poor starts, both of which caught up to Houston during its 108-78 defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors Sunday night. The Rockets emerged from that contest equal parts angry, frustrated and all too keenly aware that an elevated level of play will likely be required to punch their playoff ticket. So after taking a rare day off on Monday to cleanse their minds and refocus, the team returned to practice Tuesday ready to willingly take a long, hard look in the mirror in an effort to fix the failings that have been holding them back.
“The frustration that I felt, the way I played, the way I shot the ball, the way our effort was as a team, you don’t forget that,” said Chandler Parsons, whose immediate response to Sunday’s loss was to head to the Toyota Center practice court for shooting practice after suffering through a 2-13 night from the field. “When you lose a game like that and you get embarrassed on your home floor, I think it really puts your back against the wall and you discover things about yourself.”
“It’s hard to look at right now after what happened last game but I definitely think it’s a learning process for us. Games like that hurt and it’s a disgusting taste in our mouth but I think those are the games where you can really look back and learn from. When you watch film, the film doesn’t lie so you really see your mistakes and you really see what you can improve on. I think sometimes you learn more from losing than you do winning.”
There was certainly no shortage of lessons to be learned in the wake of Sunday’s defeat. After all, shooting poorly is one thing – nights like that are inevitable over the course of an 82-game season and are outliers that are fundamentally no different than Houston’s record-tying performance against Golden State a month earlier when the Rockets racked up 140 points and knocked down 23 three-pointers. But what really made the team’s collective blood boil was the inattention to the game’s little, oft-overlooked details that so frequently determine the difference between winning and losing this time of year.
“Sometimes we take little shortcuts that lead to big things,” admitted Jeremy Lin when asked what he and his teammates learned during Tuesday’s film session. “(On offense) we’re not running all the way down to the corners – we’re stopping at the bend of the three-point line and those few feet change the spacing; me not pushing the ball as much as I need to or not making the quick, early pass; big men setting solid screens, getting a piece of the guy and then rolling hard – not just rolling and stopping in the little pocket area but getting all the way through allowing movement and rotations to happen.”
Equipped with that knowledge and a more determined mindset, the Rockets now prepare for their latest “most important game of the season” – a Wednesday night matchup with the Utah Jazz. The playoff implications are as immense as they are obvious: win, and the Rockets seize the season tiebreaker with Utah and a three-game lead over them in the Western Conference standings; lose, and the rapidly unraveling Jazz are given new life after losing nine of their past 12 games.
On paper, the matchup appears to be a favorable one for Houston. The Jazz are the 27th ranked club in the NBA when defending against pick-and-roll ball-handlers according to Synergy Sports – a promising omen given the Rockets’ standing as the league’s most efficient scoring team in such situations. Utah also concedes the highest percentage (44.8%) of made corner threes; a shot Houston takes and makes more than any other team in the NBA. Parsons is especially dangerous from that position; his 57 made corner threes rank him 6th in that category and his 51.8 percent conversion rate is second-best only to Golden State’s Steph Curry among players who have attempted at least 50 shots from that area.
On the other side of the ball, the Rockets’ frontline certainly figures to have its hands full dealing with Utah’s quartet of quality bigs. But it’s worth noting that the Jazz offense has fallen apart in recent weeks, posting an offensive rating of 100.0 over the team’s last 12 games – a number that would place them 24th for the season. On the road, Utah’s results have been even worse: the Jazz are scoring an anemic 94.1 points per 100 possessions during their last six games away from Salt Lake City and turning the ball over on nearly 18 percent of their possessions – a figure that would place them dead last in the league by a mile and one which would certainly serve to turbocharge the Rockets’ transition game if the same phenomenon manifests itself Wednesday night.
Not that any of those things really concern the Rockets at this juncture. With the final four weeks of the season now upon them, they are far more concerned with addressing and fixing their own issues.
“These last 15 games are playoff games for us,” said James Harden. “We have to prepare ourselves to be in the playoffs – that’s what we’re shooting for. So every game, every detail, every quarter and every possession is going to count from here on out and we have to really focus in on that. We can’t be making the same mistakes we were making early in the season. We have to show our growth and maturity.
“Teams are desperate to get in the playoffs and we’re desperate to keep our spot. We’ve got to do whatever it takes.”