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Tuesday January 10, 2012 11:13 PM

Down, But Not Out

Despite rough start, Rockets know they have what it takes to bounce back

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com




HOUSTON - Before the 2011-12 season had even started, the Rockets had a keen inkling that the first ten games on their schedule were going to present a monumental challenge.

The early part of the docket was packed with one playoff caliber team after another. Practice time would be scarce, providing few opportunities for a new coaching staff and one of the youngest teams in the league to get on the same page. Back-to-backs were to be the norm, not the exception.

Quietly, the club collectively kept its fingers crossed and went to work hoping it could exceed early expectations, catch a few breaks and keep its head above water. A .500 record through the first ten games would be viewed as a godsend with regard to the team’s goal of getting back into the playoffs; anything better – sweet, sugary, delectable icing on the cake.

It didn’t happen. The injury bug bit and those brutal first ten games bit even harder, culminating with a grueling and gut-wrenching 101-95 overtime loss to San Antonio Wednesday night that left the Rockets limping home with a 3-7 record.

So here we are. It’s unfortunate but it’s the reality. It’s also not the end of the world (or Houston’s postseason hopes, of course). But before we look toward the future, it’s worth taking one more glance at the past; specifically at the words of General Manager Daryl Morey who, at the start of the season in an interview with Rockets.com, specifically addressed the challenge facing his team during the first few weeks of the schedule:

“It won’t be apparent that we’re in the mix for the first ten games at least and maybe even longer because we’re probably going to have to dig out of where we’re at a little bit because we’re definitely playing the hardest schedule in the league for the first ten games and then, on top of that, we’re playing teams with a lot of continuity generally and I think that edge is going to be huge early – even more than it would normally be.

“Boo-hoo, right? This is going to sound like an excuse. We have to fight through it. But I’m just laying out that I want people to stick with us because we’ll be fine if we get through this early part and we can build on that. But we won’t be able to fool ourselves. No one’s going to feel like we’re a great team after our first ten games because we’re going to play a schedule that even very good teams would probably be only .500 against.

“If we go 5-5 we’ll be on pace for the playoffs for sure – that would be a very good result. Then 4-6 would probably be what a playoff team would do against this schedule. Even honestly – and we don’t want to do this – but 3-7 would be one we can recover from and still make the playoffs.”

So the Rockets aren’t where they want to be. They are, however, far from sunk, possessing plenty of time to turn things around and steer the ship in a more positive direction.

The first step: ensuring the hole in which they currently find themselves does not get any deeper; also known as taking care of business at home this weekend when Sacramento and Portland comes to town. Those two games are by no means gimmes. The Kings are playing hard for a new coach and possess an enviable array of young talent. Saturday’s opponent, the Blazers, have been one of the Western Conference’s top teams so far. No one ever said stemming the tide would be easy.

It does, however, get at least somewhat easier after that. Starting with Monday’s MLK Day matinee matchup with the Wizards, Houston will close out the month of January with 9 games against teams currently sporting a combined record of 25-45, with two games apiece coming in the form of 1-9 Washington and 3-7 Minnesota. That stretch is steeped in opportunity; opportunity that teams who dare dream of postseason play take advantage of. We will know, then, much more about where this team truly stands soon enough.

As for what we know now, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Rockets will make the most of the chance that awaits them. Houston’s defense, much-maligned early on by a bevy of potent offenses and its own porous state, has shown signs of rounding into form the last few games, doing a much better job of forcing teams to rely on perimeter jumpers rather than meekly conceding free passes into the paint. And when the opposition is able to enter the lane, the Rockets have started dabbling in the art of rim protection as well; a must if they’re to rise from the depths of defensive ineptitude.

To that end, Samuel Dalembert has recently given fans a glimpse of the difference maker he can be and one assumes that the more familiar he becomes with his new teammates and the system, the more frequently his considerable gifts will be on display. Speaking of which, Dalembert’s talent for devouring rebounds has already started paying dividends for Houston in another area that was a major point of emphasis prior to the start of the season: Last year the Rockets ranked 20th overall in defensive rebound rate; through ten games this season they reside in the top-10.

Then there's Kyle Lowry, a man currently playing at a level that puts him among the best at his position. In fact, his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) heading into Wednesday’s game was higher than any other point guard in the NBA – heady stuff, though not surprising given his near triple-double averages of 16.5 points, 11.5 assists and 8.1 rebounds per 40 minutes. And if numbers aren’t your thing, surely his fearless shot-making and playmaking during the final minutes of regulation and overtime Wednesday night won you over.

On the injury front things are looking brighter, too. Courtney Lee is close to returning – perhaps as early as this weekend. Patrick Patterson looks better everyday and is sure to be a force once he feels 100 percent. And if the Rockets can ever get him and Jordan Hill simultaneously going at the same time on a consistent basis, they will have quite an athletic and physical pair of bigs to unleash upon opponents off the bench.

Oh, and Chandler Parsons has been a revelation – especially since he keeps producing moments like these.

There’s more, of course – much more. We haven’t even touched on the Rockets’ twin pillars of consistency yet, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin. Or the boost that a back-in-form Chase Budinger, revitalized Terrence Williams or called-up Marcus Morris might provide as the year wears on. At the very least, one of those three figures to make his mark before all is said and done this season.

In other words, the necessary pieces are in place to make a run here over the next few weeks, which helps explain why, even though the Rockets knew these first ten games might put them in a bit of a hole, they were just as sure they possessed the wherewithal to dig their way out of it.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

(When asked if it’s tougher to execute in overtime)

“We had some good looks. We were up one and we had two put backs, but we missed them. It got tougher for them (the Spurs) too. It gets tougher for everybody down the stretch. Everybody ties in a little bit more. The whistles get a little bit tighter. That’s just the way it is.”

(When asked Gregg Popovich said this team is the worst defensive team he’s had, do you agree)

“The played well and they won the game. They made some big shots. Tony (Parker) hit the big fade away at the end of the shot clock. We had plenty of chances. I was just happy that our guys went out and competed. We’re making strides to getting where we want to go.”

(When asked if the end of regulation play was meant for Luis Scola the whole way)

“Yeah, we had a play set up, and then we drew that up for Luis (Scola) to get down in the post.”

(When asked his thoughts on Tim Duncan passing Larry Bird on the all time scoring list)

“He’s been great. He’s one of the best players to play this game.”

KYLE LOWRY

(What was the problem for you guys offensively towards the end of the game?)

“A couple plays weren’t executed as properly as we should have executed them and a couple shots didn’t fall. I had two offensive tip-ins that didn’t fall. It just happened that some shots didn’t go in for us tonight.”

(On Spurs’ defense in the 4th quarter)

“They’re a great defensive team, we just missed some shots.”

LUIS SCOLA

(Was it tougher to get open shots down the stretch?)

“It usually is. Towards the end of the game, the defense picks up and tries to play more intense. The game is on the line, so I wouldn’t say it would be tougher. On both sides, not just for us on offense but probably for the other team on offense too. It’s just how the game goes usually.”

(Did you sense extra intensity from the Spurs playing without Manu?)

“Manu is very important for them and T.J. Ford is out too. We also have a couple guys out too. Everybody gets injured. It’s just a part of the game. Those guys can play. Tony Parker can play, Duncan can play, and all those guys can play. Obviously, they would prefer to play with Manu every game. We would prefer to play with all the players every game, but that just doesn’t happen and it’s just the way it is. Manu will be out for a long time so they are probably going to get used to playing without them.”

(Did the Spurs do anything different defensively to stop you?)

“I don’t know. You have to ask them, I don’t know.”

(Thoughts on Spurs’ Defense tonight)

“They look like a good defensive team tonight. I don’t know what has been happening in the other games.”

Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich

(On the way Tim responded tonight…)

“For the number of games and all that, I thought Timmy and Tony were great in keeping everything solid for us, the way they do. They hung tough. Kawhi was great and again, defensively, starting to figure out what’s going on. Timmy and Tony lead the way for us and of course, Richard stepped up and made a huge shot.”

(On the defense…)

“The first quarter, they drilled us. We played the kind of defense we played last night in Milwaukee. It’s early. We’re going to stay on them. We know that’s where the money is, that’s where it’s at. You’ve got to play “D” and we’ll keep at it.”

(How important was it for Kawhi to be able to defend the perimeter on both Martin and Lowry?)

“It’s huge for us to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce (Bowen) did in the past. This young man has a lot to learn, but as I’ve said a lot of times, he’s very willing, he’s very versatile and I think he’s got the ability to be one heck of a player and he wants to be. We’re excited about him.”

(On Tim’s ability, even at this stage of his career, to make that one play that is needed…be it a pass, block, rebound…)

“Tim’s a competitor. It doesn’t matter. Just because he’s a little older, doesn’t mean that he’s not going to compete to the best of his ability. He’s got a huge basketball I.Q., a great drive and he’s going to do anything he can to help his team win.”

Spurs forward Tim Duncan

(On passing Larry Bird on the all-time career scoring list…)

“Really? Wow. How’d I do that? (in the background: Free Throws) I didn’t want to pass him, out of respect, I was missing them (free throws) for him. It’s great. That’s unbelievable. I didn’t realize I was anywhere close to him.”

(On being the leader and keeping the team together during this stretch…)

“Yeah, absolutely. I’m still a big part of his team and I want to be a leader of this team. I want to be a leader on and off the floor. I want Pop and the rest of the guys to count on me to do that and I’m ready for that.”

(On Tony Parker’s play tonight…)

“He’s unbelievable. I know he’s going to be worn out tomorrow. He had a great night. He did just about everything for us. He continued to attack every time down the floor every time when we called on his number. He found a way to get things done. Whether it was finding open shooters or getting all the way to the rack or making jump shots in the lane. Whatever it may be, he was great for us.”

Spurs guard Tony Parker

(On winning the game in dramatic fashion…)

“I’m happy with this one. It was a tough one. Houston is a very physical team and they played great tonight. Everybody had to play great and it was a great win for us. We needed it.”

(On his desperation shot…)

“I lost the ball. I went into my shot and I lost it. I turned around, had a good look at the basket and it went in. So it was one of those nights for me. It was just a good night.”

(On Tim and himself stepping up in the fourth quarter…)

“I was just being aggressive. I was trying to be aggressive on the pick n’ rolls and Timmy was playing great in the post. They weren’t doubling him and with no double team, we kept passing the ball to Timmy. He played great. He missed a couple free throws in overtime but overall he had a great game.”

Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard

(On playing 10 games and getting used to the NBA...)

“I’m getting more comfortable on the court. Just knowing the offense more and my teammates are helping me out each and every game. I’m feeling more comfortable, basically.”

(Does it make you better playing against the best player on the opposing team…)

“I think so. Guarding the best player always helps your game. It involves being physical and playing at a high level every game.”

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