The Houston Rockets have been wearing two faces all season, so perhaps their historic volatility should come as no surprise.
Still, their split personalities can come off as jarring at times. Especially when they lead to an unfortunate entry in the record books as they did during Houston's 104-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday:
The distance between their peaks and valleys is staggering. Almost unprecedented.
The Rockets themselves couldn't believe how bad it was.
"We had less than 20 points in the second half?" a bewildered Chandler Parsons asked, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "In the entire half? That's terrible I didn't know that...Nineteen in the whole half? That's crazy."
Even their opponents weren't quite sure what they'd just witnessed.
"I''ve never seen anything like that," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, per Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "That's inspiring."
Terrible and crazy on one side, inspiring on the other. Funny, since those same descriptors would have come from the opposite locker room after the first 24 minutes:
That's hard to stomach no matter how you look at it.
But it's particularly tormenting for this team. This was far from an anomaly. Frankly, it's an uncomfortably common occurrence.
This team goes from championship contention to lottery lock in a matter of minutes.
Houston boasts a top-five offense (107.0 points per 100 possessions, fifth) and a top-10 defense (102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, ninth). The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers are the only two other teams that can make that claim.
The Rockets have already embarked on five winning streaks of at least three games. Their resume shows double-digit victories over the Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers.
The Rockets have one of the league's premier scorers in James Harden (24.4 points per game), a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard and a wildly productive Swiss Army knife in Parsons (17.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals).
Based on talent alone, the Rockets stand out for their collection of weapons even amid the arms race out West.
But it takes more than talent to make a title run. It takes focus the Rockets don't always show—a gear that Houston sometimes chooses not to hit.
For every quality win on this record, there's a head-scratching defeat.
The Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers entered the Toyota Center on Nov. 7 and left with a one-point win. The rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers rode 36 points from former Houston castaway James Anderson to an overtime win over the Rockets just six days later.
Great teams can get away with coasting. The Miami Heat have worn out the snooze button over the last three seasons, but still found a way to make three straight trips to the Finals and claim the last two championships.
Of course, coasting is risky business. The Rockets don't always remember to flip the switch.
Their roster reads like an embarrassment of riches, but they don't make the most of the gifts they have.
This should be a prolific passing attack. Between Harden, Parsons and Jeremy Lin, Houston has three players that can break down a defense and who don't mind sharing the wealth.
But the ball has a tendency to stick at the offensive end, especially when Houston's three-point bombs aren't detonating. Houston's 53.9 assist percentage is tied for the fifth-lowest mark.
The Rockets try to exploit isolation and post-up advantages that don't really exist.
Nearly 11 percent of Houston's offensive plays are isolations, despite the fact that this isolation game checks in as just the league's 21st most effective (0.78 points per possession). More than 11 percent of this offense is post-up chances, but the Rockets have the league's second-worst post-up attack (0.75), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
This offense can be dominant. It has been when it's utilized correctly.
With creative dribblers, relentless drivers and explosive finishers, this pick-and-roll game is predictably potent. Houston's ball handlers have enjoyed the league's second-most success (0.87) and its roll men have turned in the fifth-most points (1.1).
But pick-and-roll sets only account for 16.0 percent of their offense. That's nearly five percent fewer than it spends on a spot-up game that's been the definition of average (0.98, 15th overall). Throw in the roughly 22 percent of the plays lost to those iso and low-post sets, and Houston's been taking the wind out of its own sail.
Add a defense that will take the occasional possession, quarter or even night off to the equation, and suddenly you have a team with the wrong kind of control over their destiny.
There are going to be nights when their shooters miss their marks. There are going to be games when refs swallow their whistles. Teams are going to challenge the Rockets' physicality until they start hitting back with consistency.
A little ebb and flow is unavoidable over the course of this 82-game grind, but Houston's issues need fixing before the start of the second season.
You can still see the makings of a championship ceiling for this team, but its basement sits lower than anyone expected.
Each of these mind-numbing, inconsistent fits pushes that bar a little lower. Once it bottoms out, Houston may never find its way back to the top.
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