News And Notes: Navigating Beyond The Narrative
HOUSTON - It’s so easy to cling to the convenient narrative instead of doing the dirty work and getting to the heart of the matter. All of us are guilty of this, probably on a daily basis in fact, largely due to the reality that few if any of us have the time, motivation and wherewithal necessary to dig deep enough to discover the hows and whys of a particular problem. Instead we simply latch onto the tried and true storyline that seems best suited to the situation at hand, regardless of whether or not it actually has any basis in reality.
There’s a lot of that swirling about the Rockets right now as people understandably search for answers to explain how it is that a team could go from absolutely scorching hot to ice cold in a mere matter of days. After all, during the second half of December and first week of January, the Rockets ran roughshod over the vast majority of their competition, blowing out teams en masse while putting up 120 points against even elite defenses like those possessed by Memphis and Chicago. Houston went 12-3 during that stretch, reaching a season-high seven games over .500 in the process.
By now you all know what happened next. The Rockets hit the road and rapidly hit a brick wall, dropping seven straight, six of which took place away from the friendly confines of Toyota Center, and the club only managed to pull out of that tailspin thanks to a well-timed and much-needed fourth quarter rally against the woeful Charlotte Bobcats.
What changed to so suddenly transform the Rockets from rolling to reeling? If your kneejerk response is to blame it all on one thing – chemistry, coaching, effort, etc. – that sort of oversimplification is likely to fall well short of accurately explaining the Rockets’ recent malaise. Because the truth is there wasn’t just one thing, but rather a whole host of issues that factored into the team’s slump.
“The bottom line is it was a myriad of things,” said head coach Kevin McHale following Tuesday’s practice. “One game we missed 17 free throws. One game we had 23 turnovers. One game we go 8-30 from three. So it’s always something. When you’re playing and don’t have a good rhythm that happens. You just kind of have to regroup, stay the course and keep fighting and trying to get better.”
Something else to keep in mind (and this isn’t ever a sexy explanation but that should do nothing to downplay its significance): Houston’s January schedule was always a threat to derail the Rockets' express. Houston has six back-to-backs this month and the team’s slide just so happened to begin during the first of consecutive four-games-in-five-nights stretches. No one likes hearing about fatigue and road weary legs, but when you’re talking about a team that depends upon punishing opponents with its pace, and one which owns a starting lineup largely filled with players unaccustomed to playing heavy minutes, is it really all that surprising to see them slowed somewhat during a part of the schedule that minimizes opportunities for rest, recovery and (another oft-overlooked issue) practice? Missed shots, mental mistakes, settling for contested jumpers instead of attacking the rim – those are all red flags representing fatigue. That’s not an excuse – it’s just reality.
Another thing that shouldn’t be overlooked and also qualifies as news most fans don’t want to hear: There was probably some inevitable regression to the mean taking place over the last couple of weeks as well. Let’s remember, this is a young team – one of the youngest in the NBA in fact – that was projected by many to win somewhere in the range of 30-something games this season. The Rockets, then, were likely not quite as good as they looked when they were on their month-long tear, just as they are nowhere near as bad as they’ve appeared at times during their recent slump.
The good news, however: Houston is still firmly in control of its playoff fate and few of the teams chasing them in the standings did much to make up ground while the Rockets were sliding. And though the schedule is still going to be menacing for awhile, the number of back-to-backs will begin to dwindle and March offers hope in the form of a home-heavy schedule that should give the club a much-needed boost in its efforts to return to the playoffs.
Lastly, it probably goes without saying that the vast majority of Rockets fans would have happily responded to the news if told preseason that their team would be 22-21 and in the Western Conference’s 8th seed at the midway point of the season. No, it hasn’t been a pleasant past couple of weeks. But when taking a step back for some big picture perspective, this team is still exceeding expectations. And remember: it was never about this year with this club. The Rockets are serious about returning to title contention which is why they've done everything possible to ensure they have as much cap flexibility as possible to be predatory in trades or free agency. Houston loves its young talent, but this team is nowhere close to being a finished product. It is still growing, still on an upward trajectory and this team's best years lie in the future, not the present.
So those are just a handful of things to keep in mind when assessing the current state of the team. Undoubtedly, the Rockets have on-court issues that must be rectified and resolved if they’re to fully emerge from this hole and take flight once again. Defense of every kind – transition, help-side, individual – must be addressed and improved which is why the team spent a ton of time Tuesday hammering home the importance of proper, timely rotations in order to close out on open shooters and prevent penetration into the paint. Do that, and the offense should begin to take off once more since it only goes to follow that more stops = more opportunities to score in transition and via early offense (also known as the lifeblood of this club’s offensive heart).
This is basic basketball stuff, true, but young teams occasionally need a refresher on the fundamentals and there’s little doubt a lack of available practice time has contributed to some of the breakdowns that have taken place of late. It’s easy to forget just how few of the players on this roster are anywhere close to finished products. In fact, a strong argument can be made that not a single member of the Rockets’ starting five is all that close to reaching the prime of his playing career. After all, just because James Harden has spent the season playing at an All-Star level doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a world of room for improvement – both on-court and off.
“A lot of our guys – myself as well – we’ve got to bring each other in,” said the 23-year-old Harden. “We went through a tough stretch so everybody put theirs heads down a bit. This is a new role for me, I have to do a better job of leading these guys and telling them that this is the game: everybody goes through these stretches and we’ve got to figure a way to get out of it, no matter what it is. Last game wasn’t pretty, but we got out of it a little bit so hopefully we can get everybody’s confidence up … and just carry it over into tomorrow.”
Speaking of youth, Houston has received a surprising early boost from the newest member of the team, Patrick Beverley. The 24-year-old has displayed a knack for making an instant impact whenever he hits the floor by cranking up the energy and activity level of the entire team with his hyper-aggressive, attacking style. He’s certainly caught the eye of the coaching staff, as evidenced by the fact he’s gone from a D-League stint to earning minutes as the club’s backup point guard in less than two weeks. And Monday afternoon, Beverley was rewarded for his strong play (he was a team-leading +17 against Charlotte) by being left on the floor for the entire fourth quarter during which the Rockets rallied past the Bobcats to put an end to their losing streak.
“I just think I play with an edge,” he said of his style of play.” I think it’s more of a fight for me to stay afloat. I’m still getting accustomed to things and still learning the right sequences of defensive schemes right now. This is a learning period for me.
“A month ago I was in Europe. Two weeks ago I was in the D-League. Now I’m in the NBA. I’m definitely fortunate for this opportunity I have.
“I’m happy. I’m definitely fortunate to be able to close the game out. But at the same time it’s a long season. Jeremy and James are definitely our leaders. If I need any advice I go to Jeremy and he lets me know. It’s definitely not a competitive thing here – I’m just trying to get better.”
Lastly, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced today that the team has recalled forward Terrence Jones from Houston’s single-affiliation NBA D-League partner Rio Grande Valley. In addition, the Rockets have re-assigned forward/center Donatas Motiejunas to the Vipers. Jones was scheduled to undergo a very minor outpatient procedure on his toe and will remain in Houston to receive rehabilitation treatments. He will be expected to be out of action for up to a week.
Jones (6-9, 252, Kentucky) has averaged 19.1 points and 9.8 rebounds in 12 games (12 starts) with Rio Grande Valley this season. Through Jan. 21, Jones stands fourth in the D-League in rebounds per game (9.8) and tied for seventh in the league in scoring average (19.1). In his rookie campaign with the Rockets, Jones has averaged 3.1 points and 1.6 rebounds in 11 games with Houston in 2012-13.
Motiejunas (7-0, 222, Lithuania) has averaged 23.5 points and 10.8 rebounds over four starts with the Vipers this season. He has averaged 1.5 points and 0.3 boards in 13 games with the Rockets.