The Rockets heard the criticisms. Many of them came from within the walls of their locker room.
The frustrated head coach delivered the harshest assessments.
Wednesday night, Rick Adelman’s squad responded.
Struggling to piece together consecutive quality efforts, the Rockets extended Noche Latina month for an extra week, using the Utah Jazz as their piñata.
The disappointment of missing the playoffs became a determination to dismantle a team headed for the big dance, mismatches be damned.
As they slugged their Salt Lake City rivals, proverbial candy spilled onto the floor. It reminded fans that even though most NBA talk in Houston centers on the 2010-2011 campaign, the Rockets can still accomplish some laudable feats in their final games.
The Jazz, jockeying for postseason position, won an overtime thriller the previous night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Rockets also played the night before, winning a tight contest at Memphis. Wednesday marked their fifth game in eight nights.
Sympathy for the opponent was sparse on both benches.
Most recently, they followed the commendable victory in Boston with the puke-worthy, defenseless performance in Indiana.
Winning at the Fed Ex Forum to sweep the season series with the Grizzlies presented the Rockets with a redemption opportunity.
Finally, they took it.
The Rockets found a way to want Wednesday’s game more than the Jazz. They found a way to make the playoff-bound foe look like the one headed for the lottery.
When Utah sent an early message that they would tear through the porous interior defense with ease, Houston found other ways to run up the score.
Aaron Brooks lit it up from the perimeter for 28 points, breaking the franchise record previously held by Rafer Alston for three-pointers made in a season (196).
Luis Scola countered Carlos Boozer when it mattered with 24 points. Kevin Martin used his first outing with regular minutes since a shoulder injury to finish a seemingly endless number of three-point plays en route to 28 points.
The ball did more than move. It flew around the court at 500 mph like a 747.
When the Rockets could not finish at the rim, they made open jump shots and drew fouls.
The Jazz still shot 49 percent and waltzed to the basket any time they pleased. The Rockets know they cannot win this way next year.
Defense must lead the way.
Still, a little determination goes a long way.
Adelman’s bunch showed the same hustle in Friday’s win over the Charlotte Bobcats. As they did Wednesday, the Rockets stole an important game from a team still battling for playoff position.
They rallied to beat a Larry Brown-coached team the Larry Brown way. Defense made a fourth-quarter cameo, as did Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin’s long-range strokes.
For most of the first 44 minutes, Charlotte’s defense had choked off Houston’s offense. Then, Brooks and company turned the tables.
They did the choking in crunch-time. When the ugly slugfest had ended, the Bobcats were the ones clutching their throats and gasping for air.
The Rockets revisited their early season formula of eking out wins by making their opponents’ overwhelming advantages moot.
Luck also played a role. Brown opted to rest mercurial guard Stephen Jackson, who scored a career-high 40 points in the Bobcats previous home win.
He would have made a difference.
This team, at its best, looks like what Adelman preaches—hustle, ball movement, energy on the defensive end, and no excuses. With Yao Ming sidelined and Shane Battier done for the season, Houston again had no reason to apologize to short-handed Charlotte.
The Rockets showed even more Sunday night when they took Suns to the wire, dying in the final minutes after Phoenix unleashed a late three-point barrage.
The Suns made all four of their three-point attempts in the final 3:07.
The Rockets could not recover.
They also could not stop Amar'e Stoudemire from the opening tip.
Phoenix needed to win to keep its hope of securing the second seed alive.
The Rockets could have folded numerous times and docked the proverbial ship.
Instead, Brooks drilled threes and Scola produced a workmanlike 30-point, eight-rebound effort.
Trevor Ariza and Chase Budinger contributed 11 and 19 points, respectively.
They sent a message to the league’s hottest team.
Bring your best, or prepare to lose.
Stoudemire brought his, with his customary 35-point eruption dooming the Rockets from the start. At least it seems like he does that every time Phoenix plays.
The Suns executed with the game on the line because their lone injured player, Robin Lopez, has yet to cement himself as an integral part of the offense.
His absence does not quite compare to that of Yao.
Steve Nash and Stoudemire beat whatever Brooks and Scola threw at them with better stuff.
All-Stars with playoff experience can do that.
Playoff hopefuls and title contenders cannot collect moral victories. The Rockets dashed their own postseason hopes long ago with self-inflicted wounds that will not heal without a size upgrade.
As the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Jersey Nets decelerate from their already tortoise-like win pace to compete in the John Wall and Evan Turner sweepstakes, the Rockets have found a reason to continue their pursuit of Ws.
There is always room for improvement, even when more lottery balls might sound more appealing than a win over the Bobcats or Jazz that does not alter their standing.
The Rockets are lottery bound, and a winning finish will not change that.
This team, however, has the pieces, the trade chips, the GM, and the aggressive owner necessary to be great again.
A playoff berth and a serious run at a championship will not come without a lot of work—emphasis on a lot.
The way these Rockets see it, now is as good a time as any to continue that push.
Secaucus can wait.
Plenty of squads can play the NBA’s version of ping-pong. Not many can find the motivation to win with seemingly nothing on the line.
Wolves GM David Kahn and Coach Kurt Rambis can think about Wall or Turner all they want. The Rockets’ mission tonight: figure out how to make life difficult for Rookie of the Year favorite Tyreke Evans and the Sacramento Kings.
Wednesday? Chris Paul’s would-be back-up point guard comes to town, and the Rockets will want to stop him and the New Orleans Hornets, too.