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The Next Step

Rockets' loss to OKC offers reminder of growth that still must be made

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Rockets’ 106-98 loss to Oklahoma City Tuesday night didn’t offer lessons so much as reminders – sort of like basketball versions of Post-It notes strewn across the court declaring the painfully obvious; doozies such as: the Thunder are really, really good; Kevin Durant is ridiculous; and it’s awfully hard to win on the road against a great team when opportunities are missed, to say nothing of at least a dozen shots around the rim.

The stark and suboptimal end result of those realities stung Houston’s players and coaches as they stewed upon their first defeat in nearly two weeks. The Rockets came into their showdown in Oklahoma City not just riding a hot streak, but also harboring an immense amount of confidence in their ability to break through against a Thunder squad that had struggled to recapture its elite form in recent weeks. Dropping a game in OKC is no great sin of course, but coming away empty-handed Tuesday night felt like one of the many blown bunnies to which Houston fell victim. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

“We beat ourselves tonight,” insisted Chandler Parsons after the game. “We missed so many layups, we fouled 3-point shooters three separate times. We kept fouling them and putting them in the bonus. How many free throws did KD shoot? That’s ridiculous. You can’t put him on the line that many times when he shoots 90 percent.

“We really shot ourselves in the foot all night long. We had chances to win the game. We missed a lot of layups. I missed four or five floaters, Dwight couldn’t finish around the rim. Guys just couldn’t finish tonight on shots they usually make.”

Nights like that are bound to happen now and then, especially when facing a tough defense anchored by the long arms and bouncy presence of Serge Ibaka. The Rockets obviously did themselves no favors with their shooting touch both around the rim and from the perimeter, but give OKC’s defense credit, too. Ibaka, in particular, was an absolute menace around the rim, blocking four shots and swatting countless others. As the Rockets have seen in the past, the Thunder’s unique length, athleticism and versatility is capable of causing all sorts of problems on the defensive end, and they certainly had a hand in Houston’s poor shooting night on Tuesday.

But it’s also true also that the Rockets failed to convert a significant number of scoring opportunities they’d typically knock down in their sleep. Dwight Howard uncharacteristically struggled, scoring just nine points on 4-of-12 shooting and after the game he owned up to his off night.

“I missed a lot of shots,” he said. “A lot of shots I normally make around the basket went in and out or were short. I was upset about that. I told the guys I feel like I could have done a better job and that I let them down tonight. I need to be more dominant on both ends of the floor, and I didn’t do that tonight so I was upset about that.”

Howard wasn’t the only one feeling troubled Tuesday night. For whatever this game lacked in aesthetic value, and it lacked a great deal, it certainly offered no shortage of animus. The Pat Beverley-Russ Westbrook feud needed but a few minutes to reach a fever pitch, and the resulting furor seemed to expedite the game’s momentary descent into chaos. Reactions were mixed in the Rockets' post-game locker room when the inevitable question was posed asking if the emotional tumult temporarily took Houston’s players out of their comfort zone. Most dismissed that notion, sticking to the storyline that all the missed shots made far more of an impact on the final score, and they’re almost certainly right. James Harden, however, did say he felt like the distractions got the better of his team at times, and he hammered that point home by attributing the Rockets’ second half rally to vastly improved focus.

What the players were unanimous about, however, was their support of Beverley and his ultra aggressive style of play. To a man, the Rockets stuck up for their starting point guard, insisting that his bulldog nature and bellicosity are essential ingredients in what makes him such a uniquely effective player – not to mention a migraine-inducing matchup for the opposition.

“That was Pat being Pat,” Howard said when asked about Beverley’s run-ins with Westbrook. “You can’t take that away from him. He’s going to be aggressive and he’s going to get into Russell and into all their point guards and work hard to make it tough for them to score. He got in foul trouble doing it, but you can’t take away somebody’s aggressiveness.”

Losing is never a pleasurable experience, especially for a team that has grown so accustomed to finding ways to emerge victorious. Not surprisingly, then, the Rockets were a rather salty bunch after the game. They came here to win, they believed they would, and the subsequent fall left them grousing and grumpy – as it should. Yes, the internal accountability accepted and support shown in the wake of defeat had to be considered positive signs, but given that this team long ago passed the point of finding solace in moral victories, such silver linings are wasted on them these days.

The Rockets are well aware that the Thunder and Clippers represent the only elite teams they have yet to topple a single time this season. They’ll receive another crack at each on their home floor in Houston over the next few weeks. Until then, one final reminder from Tuesday’s contest figures to linger over all the rest: for all the strides the Rockets have made over the season’s last two months, many more remain before this club can reach the place it so desperately desires to be.