Down But Hardly Out

Rockets licking their wounds while looking ahead to golden opportunity that still awaits them
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - The Rockets are angry, hurting and frustrated following back-to-back defeats. There are probably several other adjectives that can be used to describe their present mood, some certainly being far more family friendly than others. What they are not, however, is despondent or lacking in confidence.

If there is a silver, or at the very least pewter, lining to the team’s seven-game slide in January, it comes in the form of proof that Houston’s players and coaches possess the capacity to bounce back from a stretch of tough losses and less than stellar play. The circumstances this time around are different of course and largely for the better (more practice time, more rest, and a better overall understanding of what must be done), but the lessons of that nadir still ring as loudly and clearly as ever: such slumps need not be season-defining, nor do they last forever. The Rockets responded to that dismal stretch by winning seven of their next ten games. Repeat that feat, or better it, and chances are this current speed bump won’t even be visible in the rearview mirror.

“You really do learn and grow from your losses,” said Jeremy Lin following Thursday’s practice. “For us, if we can go on a nice, little win streak right now then I guess it makes this tough stretch worth it.

“It’s just kind of tragic to see how good we can play and then the next thing you know, a minute later, we’re like a completely different team. That’s our next step.”

Such inconsistency is hardly unusual for a team sporting as much youth and inexperience as the Rockets do – in fact, it typically tends to be a calling card of sorts far more often than not. And in Houston the primary source of that varying performance can frequently be found within the club’s erratic behavior on D.

It’s no secret that the Rockets’ defense represents this team’s Achilles’ heel, as the club has ranked in the league’s bottom-10 in defensive efficiency for most of the season. To be sure, some of that is simply a byproduct of extreme youth – fans are far more likely to get a clean glimpse of the Loch Ness monster than they are to witness lockdown defense on a night-in, night-out basis from any NBA team that can call itself the league’s youngest – but it’s also at least in part a matter of personnel. When Omer Asik is on the floor, for example, Houston actually defends at a rate that would rank them among the top-12 teams from a defensive efficiency standpoint. When he rests, that number plummets to 29th. And the Asik effect also extends to the team’s ability to control the defensive glass. With the 26-year-old giant roaming the paint, the Rockets grab defensive rebounds at a rate that would lead the league. Put him on the bench and Houston becomes a bottom-10 club in that category.

What to do? Assuming cloning is not an option, it’s obviously incumbent for everyone else to pick up the slack anytime Asik sits. And that starts with Houston’s perimeter defenders who were burned far too often during Wednesday night’s demoralizing loss to Milwaukee.

“It’s all just stupid mental lapses that everyone’s making that you can easily control,” explained Chandler Parsons. “Guys falling asleep getting back-cut, or guys not following the scouting report and forcing Brandon Jennings right – just little things like that that we knew to do, we just didn’t execute.”

Attention to detail. Communication. Even complacency was brought up Thursday as players reflected upon the reasons behind the bewildering defensive breakdowns that led to a second straight game in which a 17-point lead was squandered. Such foibles and flaws must be fixed in a hurry. With just six weeks left in the season, whatever margin for error that previously existed is rapidly slipping away. The ever-present threat represented by the Lakers lies just two games back of Houston in the loss column. But also looming on the horizon for the Rockets is a home-heavy March schedule just waiting to be conquered. Houston still controls its playoff fate. And if the club can get past its growing pains in time and transition toward another growth spurt, the Rockets have an opportunity to put this slump, and the competition, behind them in a hurry.

"I’d rather look forward and look at the seventh or the sixth seed than I would about the ninth," said Lin. "The next 10 games we have to take very seriously. If we do a good job, we can move up and we won’t have to worry about anybody catching up to us."

Chandler Parsons was even more blunt in his approach.

“I could (not) care less about the Lakers,” he said. “If we win our games, then maybe the Jazz will lose and help the Lakers get in if everyone wants them in. But we control our own destiny right now so I don’t really care what they’re doing or who they play as long as we focus on who we’re playing.”