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Trial By Fire

Rockets receive tough lesson at hands of the Heat

MIAMI - Over the last 18 months or so, the Rockets have gone a long way toward closing the talent gap between themselves and the NBA’s elite. They boast the league’s best players at both the center and shooting guard positions, a starting lineup that has produced consistently outstanding results, and role players who have given the club sorely-needed jolts at various points throughout the season.

What the Rockets still lack in comparison to every other top shelf team in the league, however, is not something that can be signed, traded for or drafted. The familiarity and on-court telepathy that squads like Oklahoma City and Miami possess can only come with time; time that is typically measured in years, not months, by the way. The Rockets have made rapid gains in that area this season; their recent 15-wins-in-17-games stretch is proof positive of that. But their education in that regard is nowhere near complete, a reality that was made manifest during the final five minutes of Houston’s 113-104 loss to Miami Sunday afternoon.

For more than three-and-a-half quarters the Rockets had the look of a team that had arrived in South Beach on a mission, hell-bent on seeing that assignment through to completion. Houston survived a miserable second quarter stretch and, ship summarily righted, appeared poised to beat the Heat by bludgeoning Miami behind the beguiling genius of James Harden and superior paint presence of Dwight Howard. With their ball security and defensive rebounding issues under control, the Rockets seemed to have a handle on the Heat’s prolific offense. Every Miami shot at the rim met with fierce resistance from either Howard or Omer Asik. Chandler Parsons’ pickpocket routine was creating easy points in transition. And all the while it was Harden, not LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, who looked like the matchup’s most unstoppable offensive force.

The game’s final 4:26 told an entirely different story, of course. Houston had a couple good looks that did not fall during that defining stretch, but several more possessions it would surely like to have back. Miami, meanwhile, executed its pet plays and progressions like the well-oiled and battle-tested machine that it is. Wade went to work, Ray Allen went wild, and the Heat rode a 15-2 finishing kick to victory.

Experience, of course, isn’t everything; after all it was less than two weeks ago that the Rockets were the ones coming through in crunch time to topple the Heat. And no team boasts more cumulative and collective big game reps than does San Antonio, and Houston has already bested that bunch on three separate occasions this season, delivering the goods in the fourth quarter each and every time. But that sort of deeply ingrained, well-honed corporate knowledge and crunch time confidence quite clearly matters, and though the Rockets have proven to be quick learners, they’re also still playing catch-up to the rest of the league’s elite in that regard.

“You can tell they’re comfortable in those situations,” said Jeremy Lin of the Heat’s late-game execution. “They know exactly what they’re doing and their go-tos that they go back to over and over again. As for us … we just haven’t been through as many fires.”

The Rockets got burned by one such flame Sunday afternoon. And while this latest singe will surely sting, its lasting impact can yet prove positive. A team in need of all the experience it can handle just received one more valuable lesson as the playoffs inch ever closer.

That realization offered little in the way of solace on the flight back to Houston. But perhaps this reminder will: there is no triumph without failure, no glory without the occasional face plant. It is from those missteps that the formula for success is ultimately fine-tuned and, hopefully, perfected. No less an authority on the subject than Michael Jordan famously delivered this line during his playing days: “I have failed over and over again in my life – that is why I succeed.”

Yes, the Rockets fell flat at the finish Sunday. But in the process they gained another crunch time rep against a great team in a hostile atmosphere. Its acquisition was not remotely pleasant, but properly applied, the lessons gleaned may well prove pivotal down the line when the stakes are raised, the postseason begins and talent that’s sufficiently buttressed with experience matters more than ever.