Rockets Rising As Pressure Mounts

Tuesday April 5, 2011 11:00 AM

The Value Of Experience

As pressure mounts, Rockets showing ability to rise to the occasion

West Medlin

HOUSTON - It’s amazing how pressure can make the easiest tasks seem impossible. I became so nervous the first time I was called on in law school that I nearly choked on an Altoid before I could answer my first question. My voice shrunk to library-level volumes, and by the time it was over I had sweated enough to make Bruce Pearl look like an Old Spice spokesman. Not exactly the ideal way to make your first impression to the 70 classmates with whom I’d be in school for the next three years of my life.

Fast forward 2 ½ years and it’s funny to reflect on my first semester anxiety. Getting called on in class is no longer a big deal. I know what to expect and I know how to handle it. No biggie. So what’s the difference between now and then? The answer really comes down to one thing: experience.

And experience is exactly what the Rockets have gained in their late season playoff push. Houston entered the All Star break with a 26-31 record and faced a daunting uphill battle before they could expect to re-enter the playoff conversation. From that point forward, the Rockets had nearly zero margin for error. Every game mattered. Immensely.

Instead of crumbling under pressure, however, the Rockets rose to the occasion. Houston came out of the break hitting on all cylinders, immediately ripping off a 5-game winning streak. And they really haven’t missed a beat from there, posting a 15-5 post-break record – good for the fourth-best mark in the NBA during that time.

In other words, the Rockets have transformed a time of adversity into a time of team growth.

“We've been playing like that since the whole month of March it feels like. Every game has been win or go home,” said Kevin Martin, who has been averaging an eye-popping 29 points per game over the course of Houston’s last seven contests. “We've been bringing that mentality, bringing that preparation to the game and I think that's why we've had a lot of success after the All Star break.”

Their play during this stretch reveals how much the team has grown. The early season demons of fourth quarter struggles and squandered leads are gone. The team can now be counted on to show poise and precision late in games. Behind team leaders Chuck Hayes, Kyle Lowry, and Kevin Martin, the Rockets are playing with a grit and composure that was absent early in the season. In the game’s tightest moments that trio doesn’t just think it can get the job done, it plays as if it has absolutely certainty that it will. As a result, the Rockets aren’t simply seeing a serious uptick in the win column, this relatively young team is also gaining invaluable experience in the art of performing under pressure.

“Anytime you go through an experience like that where everything's on the line, it's got to help your young players especially,” Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman said. “As a team that got thrown together with big changes at the trade deadline, I think anytime young players go though that experience it's got to help.”

“If you look at our team we have a lot of young guys that really haven't been in that situation, really haven't had to play every game like it's their last game of the season to be meaningful,” Martin continued. “I think these games have helped us grow as a team and individually.”

Regardless of whether or not New Orleans’ and Memphis’ collective stubbornness to fall in the standings prevents Houston from being rewarded with a playoff berth for their stellar play, the Rockets growth and ability to handle late-game, late-season challenges is a strong indicator that the club is moving in the right direction. The Rockets have been playing, and succeeding, in the type of do-or-die, pressure-packed situations that are usually reserved for the postseason. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the team’s late-season surge is the maturity that has developed along the way. It’s the type of experience that a team can carry into the offseason and build upon in seasons to come.

There is no substitute for experience. And the Rockets’ play over the last six weeks demonstrates that they are taking full advantage of theirs.

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