Ring. Ring. Ring. Mitch Kupchak, you have a call from Houston.
Daryl Morey will continue to work the phones in pursuit of roster improvements, or, in more specific terms, Pau Gasol.
If an agency wiretapped every cellular device in the United States, would any phrase come up more than, “Hello, this is Daryl”?
While the Rockets GM positions the franchise for that next deal, the players also need to make a trade.
Forget the March 15 transaction deadline. If anyone is still sulking about the aborted three-way exchange that would have landed Pau Gasol in Houston, get over it.
Luis Scola advised his teammates to “shut the … up and play” a month ago, and the Rockets responded with superior efforts the first week of February.
Now comes the part where the Rockets shut up for good and deliver oomph the same way every night.
The team hosts the Philadelphia 76ers tonight in its final match before the All-Star break. A win catapults the squad to an impressive six games above .500. An outfit lacking a bona fide superstar building block or recent championship pedigree should approbate the chance to improve to 20-14 and remain sixth in the frenetic, changes-by-the-day Western Conference playoff picture.
The Rockets have fared as well in the win column as any group with this composition could.
Yet, the team would resemble something greater if it attacked each opponent the same way, with relentless intensity and determination serving as an omnipresent compass.
Kevin McHale demands that his players compete with the same attitude that marked his Hall of Fame career. The shots may not fall. An All-Star wearing the other jersey might start grilling his defender like beef skirt steak. The foul situation or the whistle discrepancy may prove too much to overcome.
None of that matters as long as the effort remains a constant. In the last month, it hasn’t.
No one expected these Rockets to travel a smooth, just-paved road to the postseason. They make the expedition bumpier, though, by creating their own potholes.
McHale has blistered his employees too many times after crushing defeats. They should have received and internalized the coach’s pertinent, vital message by now.
The suggested trade begins tonight when the surprising Sixers visit. Play hard every night, not just when McHale morphs into the Incredible Hulk and fumes about a disgraceful performance.
Make a deal for a consistent attitude.
Philadelphia’s mastery of Houston—the Sixers have won seven of the last eight meetings—might still continue. That does not matter.
McHale should expect uneven results when he fields a starting lineup with Samuel Dalembert at the 5. Far from undeviating, the 6’11” center was available after the NBA’s Christmas opening day for a reason.
Dalembert has been erratic since he began his professional tenure.
The scoring output from any given Rocket contributor may change. The effort cannot.
If the team managed to squeeze in a film session before tonight’s contest, I would bet the farm that McHale opened it with a dissection of Monday’s fourth quarter.
Then, with Houston and Memphis tied at 76 after three periods, a small Rockets lineup limited the Grizzlies to 6-of-19 shooting and eked out a 97-93 victory.
There. That’s it. That is the template.
A joust that often looked like it was headed for 120-117 turned when the Rockets remembered the All-Star Game comes to Houston next year, not this one.
The way the Grizzlies sliced up and murdered the Rockets inside through three quarters made it difficult to distinguish that lousy, lackadaisical exertion from what the league’s finest athletes will manage Sunday in Orlando.
Memphis piled up 38 points in the paint in the first half, more than the Utah Jazz had scored in the entire 48 minutes the night before.
Effort and attitude count for a lot when overall size and talent do not.
If you can convince any Rockets player, including the youngsters perpetually on the inactive list, to describe Friday’s 111-98 defenseless flop against the Minnesota Timberwolves as acceptable, I’ll give you a million bucks.
Important note for readers looking to get rich: I do not own a farm or a million bucks. That last bit of information is irrelevant, since no one on Morey and Leslie Alexander’s payroll would dare cast making Nikola Pekovic look like Dwight Howard as a success. Not Terrence Williams. Not Chase Budinger. Not Kyle Lowry.
Pekovic has produced a fine campaign to this point and merits serious Most Improved Player consideration. His 12-point, seven-rebound averages speak to his substantial amelioration.
The Rockets, however, bombed the test when they let Pekovic push them around and waltz to the basket en route to an effortless 30 and 12 outing.
That embarrassing eruption falls on everyone that logged minutes Friday night, not just the rotation of bigs assigned to check the tandem of Pekovic and Kevin Love.
Dalembert, Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola bore the brunt of the blame for the setback. When the defense fails on such a massive scale, everyone is culpable.
Love tallied 33 and 17, which is what he tends to do these days. McHale did not ask his overmatched bunch to shut down the league’s most productive power forward. He still seethed and vented more than 48 hours later because the Rockets did not fight back.
Hold Pekovic closer to his averages and the result might be a tied season series instead of a lopsided 3-1 mark. If the squads end the season with identical records, Minnesota makes the playoffs because of that tiebreaker; Houston watches the proceedings on TV.
Make a deal for an attitude.
Love and his Wolves stepped all over the Rockets in the second and third meetings. That Houston did not display visible vexation in the final showdown is inexcusable.
Larry Bird’s quote after the Celtics dropped one to the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals—“We played like a bunch of women tonight”—will forever live in Boston sports lore.
He did not offer that famous response as a means to berate female athletes. He did not take an unnecessary, clairvoyant shot at the WNBA, which debuted 14 years later.
“Until we get our hearts where they belong, we’re in trouble.”
The Celtics napped against the Lakers on the biggest stage, and Bird voiced his displeasure with an off-the-cuff assessment. He was pissed off about it and did something to rectify the pratfall two nights later.
It is Morey’s job to bring the Rockets’ next version of Bird to Houston. Teams do not contend for titles without a star anchor. Collecting several All-Stars has been a must for most of professional basketball’s lengthy history.
Leave that to Morey. Lord knows he’s trying.
An NBA roster does not need a performer as accomplished as Bird to battle the way he did from 1979-1992.
Anytime Lowry, Kevin Martin, Scola, Courtney Lee, Patterson, Budinger and Goran Dragic suit up opposite Rick Adelman, they should remember how they must play to flourish. The effort cannot change, no matter the circumstances.
Adelman could not guide the Yao-less Rockets to the postseason, but he did bequeath that lesson before departing for Minnesota.
McHale continues to deliver a similar sermon, with the added wrinkle of benching anyone who ignores his preaching.
Anyone that does not play hard, including Martin, the team’s highest-paid player, can sit down.
The former Celtic made that clear when he ordered Dalembert and Hill to watch a tilt versus the Denver Nuggets from the pine. He sent in Jeff Adrien to supply some energy and ardor.
The front office cutting Adrien days later was a cruel coincidence and an unfortunate part of the sports business.
The 19-14 Rockets have been both frustrating and inspiring.
Fend off the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder one night. Get mauled by the Timberwolves the next.
Heck, a few weeks ago, the Rockets served as Michael Beasley’s personal concierge service, offering him the best possible paths to the basket, free of charge. He dropped 34 in Minnesota’s 120-108 win at Toyota Center.
McHale’s relentless message, honed during his stay as an all-time great power forward in Beantown: Nothing comes free. Ever.
The players must embrace that philosophy as their coach does. The consequence of failing to do so has been as evident as ever in February.
Man up and fight, or prepare to pick 14th in the draft and miss the playoffs for a third straight season.
Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mark Jackson, Lionel Hollins, Mike Brown, Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, Scott Brooks, Adelman, Alvin Gentry and Tyrone Corbin are no doubt requesting the same toughness in their locker rooms with varying results.
The Rockets do so many admirable things. Chandler Parsons starting at small forward as a second-round draft pick is a testament to just how much effort and intensity can count.
Lowry nudged himself into the All-Star conversation with a marvelous start that, at one juncture, saw him leading all guards in rebounds and assists per game.
His numbers faded and his shooting percentage plummeted far too much to earn a reserve spot on the West squad in Orlando. If he keeps this up, the coaches will select him for the exhibition soon enough.
His astonishing line Monday: 24 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
What Morey does with this group before March 15 is his prerogative and his job.
Rival executives will come to expect “Hello, this is Daryl” in the next few weeks as much as the sunrise and sunset.
The Sixers invade the Toyota Center tonight, and the Rockets have the chance to make a lasting trade that could spell the difference between the seventh or eighth seed and the lottery.
Acquire a consistent attitude and approach, and start with Doug Collins roaming the sidelines.
Then, the next time McHale rips a player for missing a rotation or slacking on defense, he’ll have to traverse the space on the Rockets arena floor that says “NBA Playoffs” to do it.