Kevin McHale provided the exclamation point to a running joke in Houston the previous June.
Now, the guy few outside of the Rockets organization picked to succeed Rick Adelman has the squad poised to do what his future Hall of Fame predecessor could not with a starless cast: make the playoffs.
Some sports talk hosts and fans teased and berated GM Daryl Morey for conducting a coaching search with enough candidates to fill the Toyota Center. The stats-minded executive seemed to interview more sideline prospects than there have been fans at several games this season.
When he picked the Celtics great from an eclectic finalist group to replace Adelman, a few wondered in jest if Morey reached his decision by throwing rocks in the Buffalo Bayou—or worse, throwing darts at a board while wearing a blindfold.
The joke is on them.
In truth, no one of note predicted McHale would bellyflop in his first full year as a head coach, because no one knew what to make of his scant experience as a tactician in Minnesota. He served two interim stints there, taking over twice after he fired coaches as the franchise’s often-derided, punching-bag general manager.
He no longer evaluates talent the way he did in patching together pathetic, moribund Timberwolves rosters for 15 years. McHale drafted Kevin Garnett, and yet, Minnesota reached the Western Conference Finals only once in the defensive stalwart’s 12-year stay.
McHale might not be the ideal man to compile a draft board, but he has proven beyond any doubt in these last three months that he can motivate players and steer a team with his competitive streak and a clipboard.
He might not be a competent owner’s first choice to rank draft prospects at a skills camp, but he has excelled at assembling a no-nonsense operation and keeping a bevy of second-round picks, developing youngsters and role players pointed in a triumphant direction.
Adelman worked wonders with this group in the two years following the Rockets’ first playoff series victory since the Bill Clinton administration. The team lost Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady for good, but it rarely misplaced its savoir-faire, spark or spunk.
He provided his often-overmatched outfit with an exemplary model for competing sans an all-world performer in the LeBron James or Kevin Durant mold.
Adelman’s approach to building Houston’s remarkable resolve was so artful that it should have been an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. If a Renaissance-era painter could depict the coach’s latest work with the Timberwolves in a landscape, the breathtaking result would belong in The Louvre alongside the Mona Lisa.
Parting ways with Adelman, though, just meant transitioning from Leonardo Da Vinci to Pablo Picasso.
McHale has guided the Rockets to a laudable 20-14 mark at the All-Star break with some inspired brush strokes of his own.
His signature tough guy touch rarely yields an aesthetic masterpiece, but it produces provocative results all the same.
Morey selected Marcus Morris with the 14th pick in the 2011 draft, yet McHale decided Chandler Parsons, the second-rounder projected by many pundits to spend his rookie campaign in the D-League, was more equipped to contribute at the NBA level.
Parsons now starts and finishes games as the team’s primary defensive stopper and jumps out of nowhere to flush rim-rattling tip-in dunks. The two blemishes on his otherwise sparkling rookie resume are opprobrious foul shooting and an unreliable three-point shot.
Morey and McHale want Morris to become more of a 3 than an undersized 4 and believe he can learn and hone those skills with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers better than he ever would at the end of the bench here. Credit McHale for making the right call with his draftees.
When a player dogs it, McHale never hesitates to tell that kid to take a seat.
Those unwilling to play hard watch the action from the bench.
Terrence Williams’ butt keeps the pine plenty warm during the uneven winter months. His professional career thus far has amounted to a crude fart, and McHale has yet to see or smell anything from Williams to convince the coach to remove his gas mask.
When Jordan Hill and Samuel Dalembert failed to display any “zip” against a crippled Denver Nuggets squad, McHale tapped seldom-used Jeff Adrien to provide that missing ingredient. Adrien responded with nine rebounds and plenty of spice.
The coach has benched everyone from Kevin Martin, the Rockets’ highest-paid player and top scorer, to Chase Budinger, Houston’s representative in Saturday’s Sprite Slam Dunk Contest.
Doug Collins brought his unselfish, impressive 20-13 Philadelphia 76ers to Toyota Center on Wednesday night and left hours later with a 20-14 record and a sepulchral scowl. Philly, losers of five straight, had taken six of the last seven tilts versus Houston.
The Rockets’ latest win needs no qualification. They survived the toughest of matchups with grit and gumption, the way McHale did as a legendary Celtic.
Lou Williams did not locate his rhythm as the Sixers' leading scorer. Andre Iguodala clanged all but one of his attempts in half-court sets. Philly connected on just 40 percent of its shots and managed 87 points.
McHale did not take this job anticipating the Rockets would become a defensive juggernaut. He cannot, however, allow himself to shrug or sleep when the team pampers opponents with stress-free routes to the basket.
These Rockets better make it stressful for the other guys somehow, someway. McHale blows a gasket when they don’t. He even dials friends at 3 a.m. searching for answers.
Nothing cures a coach’s insomnia quite like a winning streak built on persistence and character. The Rockets demonstrated both essential qualities in beating the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies and Sixers.
Just as McHale wanted, when things got rough, Houston got tough.
“It’s exactly what it’s been in my NBA career as a player or coach,” he said in a post-game presser last week. “I slept like an hour after the Minnesota game, watched it like five times, had myself so worked up at 3 o’clock in the morning, I was calling people.
"Then I know I lost my mind. Nobody wants to talk to you at 3 o’clock in the morning. The worst thing is I was trying to call people on the East Coast so it was 4. I was so pissed.
"I couldn’t sleep when I played poorly. That game bothered me so much I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I woke up the next morning and I made a pot of coffee and said, ‘I’m going to stew for three or four hours and sit here.’ I honestly wondered, ‘What am I doing? Why did I take this job? I got to be out of my mind.’ Then the guys battled back. They respond and you go, ‘I love coaching.’”
The hard-nosed style associated with the Bird-McHale-Robert Parish Celtics explains the middle guy’s coaching philosophies.
His gutsy decisions can backfire. Some of his makeshift lineups sputter like an old car one last transmission failure away from the junkyard. Playing Martin just 18 minutes at Memphis, when Houston needed somebody, anybody to find the basket, in hindsight, was a questionable decision.
Say this for McHale: Just as he did when committing hard fouls and taking opponents through what Charles Barkley called the “torture chamber” alongside Larry Bird, he makes his presence felt as a coach.
The Rockets host one more contest at the Toyota Center on Tuesday before a test the next night in Salt Lake City. It would behoove them to dispatch the lowly Toronto Raptors.
The no-defense-allowed exhibition weekend now in the books, teams will focus on the stretch run of this condensed, hectic schedule. McHale’s squad must keep this up to hang around until May, when playoff resoluteness dictates the final pecking order as much as talent.
The next eight dates on the itinerary—vs. Toronto, at Utah, vs. Denver, vs. L.A. Clippers, at Boston (where Houston has triumphed three times in the last four years), at Toronto, at New Jersey and at Cleveland—are all winnable.
How the roller coaster Rockets might fare remains a mystery. The way McHale wants his players to attack every foe is as certain as the malice involved in his famous clothesline of Kurt Rambis.
He wanted to send the Lakers a message. He doesn’t bump or shove forwards or centers anymore, but he has made it clear to these Rockets that he means business. They should, too.
With the jokes of the previous June rendered imprudent and extraneous, he has the Rockets poised to become his exclamation point.