The Houston Rockets dubbed the home and season finale "Red Nation Appreciation Night."
Wednesday's game against the New Orleans Hornets was supposed to be an exchange of gratitude between the spectators who did not expect much from a Yao Ming-less squad and the undersized athletes who had given them a reason to believe again in the power of determination.
Then, the Rockets started and ended a 123-115 loss in a way that befits their 42-40 season.
They did not contest shots. They failed to fight through screens. Too many players missed too many rotations.
The Hornets, spiraling downward without Chris Paul on a deflating losing streak, sliced through soft coverage from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
David West had his way with each member of the Rockets frontline en route to 36 points. He delivered the interior abuse with such ease, he might have mistaken the defenseless scrimmage for a practice.
The Rockets lost to a cratering team without its best player on fan appreciation night?
Rick Adelman would like to forget many of those 40 losses this year, and no one can blame him for wanting to zap some unpleasant memories. He must make sure no one on the roster forgets this dud.
It should not prove a difficult task. Allowing 63 percent shooting and 123 points in a season finale would seem like a memorable finish.
It also fits.
When players evaluated how the team had performed sans inside anchor Yao Ming for 82 games, there was a common theme.
They won more games than anyone expected but did not accomplish their stated goal of making the playoffs.
This kind of listless performance is why Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and others will watch the NBA's second season from their couches instead of participating in it.
They need to remember this one so they won't ever do it again.
Winning eight of 11 games after elimination from postseason contention became official ranks as an impressive achievement.
Five wins in six games had prompted the loud return of optimism in Houston.
Callers flooded the city's sports talk stations with messages of hope and praise.
When this team gets Yao Ming back, fans said, it will contend for a title even if GM Daryl Morey makes zero offseason roster tweaks and just re-signs Scola and Kyle Lowry.
Not so fast.
Maybe the Rockets needed to get pistolwhipped by a banged-up, fellow lottery squad to get the message one more time.
Yao has not played competitive basketball since May 2009. The hairline fracture in his left foot was his fifth major injury in five seasons.
If he returns in time for the 2010-2011 campaign, and that remains an ify proposition, Adelman cannot expect his 7'6", injury-prone center to play more than 15 minutes a night.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas required a full season of rationed minutes after undergoing the same operation for the same foot problem.
Does 15 minutes of Yao in November and December guarantee anything?
No one knows how his body will react to the rigors of game action. No one, not even Yao, knows if he will ever approach his 20-point, 10-rebound form again.
The return of such a massive body will solve some quandaries. The NBA's tallest player can alter shots and discourage penetration just by standing in front of the basket.
The Rockets should plan on not giving up 56 points in the paint with frequency.
Yao cannot, however, provide a panacea. To expect that from him is to accept derangement.
Safe bet: Colangelo also likes Bosh and will try to re-sign him.
The players, then, cannot bank on the arrival of a savior.
The biggest roster improvements must come from within the locker room. Many of the youngsters who could not stop anyone in a Hornets jersey on Wednesday will bear the biggest burden for the necessary defensive advancements.
CEO Tad Brown should forget about a catchy team slogan for next season and just go with this one:
"No defense. No chance."
Painful as it was to watch the league's surprise winning team get demolished on its home floor, it might also be remembered as an unavoidable lesson.
These 42-40 Rockets did their supreme head coach proud. Adelman said as much in a rare positive post-game interview.
They won because he pushed them, even when it seemed illogical and cruel to do so. Adelman never allowed his players to marry mediocrity and satisfaction.
He cannot do it now.
New Orleans' beatdown offered an admonition of how much tougher the Western Conference will be next year.
If the Hornets make a splashy coaching hire (Avery Johnson?), get Chris Paul back at-full strength, and snare another contributor in the lottery, the eight teams in the postseason now will have to deal with them.
The Grizzlies' young nucleus can improve, so long as Zach Randolph continues his newfound commitment to locker room goodwill and basketball IQ.
Do not forget the Clippers. No. 1 pick Blake Griffin played zero minutes this season. He could make a talented, underachieving roster a lot better.
The Kings have found a spectacular building block in Rookie of the Year favorite Tyreke Evans. If management makes the right offseason decisions, that team will win more than 24 games.
The above conversation excludes the eight 50-win franchises set to battle one another this weekend.
Richard Jefferson has finally coalesced with the Spurs. Manu Ginobili is Manu Ginobili again.
The Thunder will ride the core of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook to more ameliorations.
Even if Yao comes back and averages career-highs in points and rebounds, a trip to the playoffs is far from a lock.
Just getting to the postseason will be an unmerciful undertaking. Winning a round or two once there will require much more.
The promising athletes lining Morey's roster have the talent. Yao plus another seven-foot, defensive big will boost the defensive contributions of Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza.
Chase Budinger can be better in that department. Jordan Hill's awareness around the basket can improve.
Scola always gives his best effort. Yao's presence would make that relentless hustle a net positive.
Brooks and Kevin Martin may be skinny, but they possess the quickness to stay in front of their assignments. They can do more.
The Rockets allowed opponents to hit their shots at a 46 percent clip this season, the highest number surrendered since before Jeff Van Gundy.
Foes slipped to the basket in axiomatic pajamas, with the Houston defense too comatose and undersized to challenge its attackers.
The pillow soft resistance needed one last wake up call.
The phone rang, and the noise wasn't coming from a T-Mobile commercial.
The Toyota Center was half-empty at tipoff and half-empty after the spanking had become official.
In between, the seats filled up, the Rockets cut to the rim for 60 points in the paint, and doled out 31 assists.
They won every offensive category except shooting percentage and lost.
Could the season have ended in a more fitting way?
Champions do not secure trophies by just outscoring opponents. A seven-foot reminder of that watched the action courtside.
The loudest applause of the night was showered on Hakeem Olajuwon, announced as a "very special Rockets fan."
His appearance on the lighthouse—as he waved from a courtside seat—prompted one of the night's two standing ovations.
The team disgraced his name and legacy against the Hornets but also honored it by exceeding expectations.
Olajuwon would never have accepted unconditional surrender.
This team did not, either.
It fought and won some games it had no businesses winning.
The Rockets beat every bonafide title contender except the Orlando Magic at least once.
They completed the winningest December in franchise history. They won as many games this April as they did when they were supposed contenders last year.
Brooks provided a strong argument for most improved honors, averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists.
He bagged an NBA-leading 208 triples and obliterated Rafer Alston's franchise record for threes in a season.
Yet, amidst the euphoria of all they had overcome, there was justified disappointment.
The Rockets lost their season finale and failed to qualify for the playoffs.
That bottom line makes the 123-115 final score a dud to remember.
Rockets and Gilbert Arenas?
I listen to Houston's Sports Radio 610 AM on the way to work in the mornings and during the drive home in the afternoons.
You better believe a few morons fill up the airwaves and phonelines. Wednesday night, one caller took the cake and ran away with it.
The station produces a fan feedback show that allows those who just listened to or watched the game to talk about it.
How's this for a dumb idea?
This male fan's suggestion for improving the Rockets: How about Gilbert Arenas?
"He's a power forward, right?" the guy asked.
If he reads this column, I hope he will not take this personally. It was too hysterical not to mention.
When I think of ways to make a 42-40 team with lacking size better, the first player that comes to mind is an overpaid, dog-it on most nights, wannabe point guard who considers gun play in the locker room a practical joke.
Shall we bring in Arenas and plan the parade?
The Rockets seem set at the guard positions, provided they re-sign Lowry. Plus, Arenas remains under contract with the Washington Wizards, who opted not to pursue a nullification of the remaining $90 million on his deal.
What GM with a shred of intelligence would give up valuable pieces in a trade to get an immature clown and cap killer?
Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld would love to know.
Morey's Response to Adelman Story: "No Way"
The Rockets GM appears every Thursday morning during the season on 610 AM to offer insights on the team's play and answer questions from fans.
Asked this morning about a report in the Sacramento Press that Adelman could leave the NBA to become the head coach at the University of Oregon, Morey's reply was firm.
"Rick Adelman will be the coach of the Rockets next year."
Morey said there was was "no chance" and "no way" Adelman would go anywhere else in the offseason.
Ariza Goes Triple-Double
The Rockets marquee offseason acquisition posted his first career triple-double in Wednesday's loss with 26 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds.
That accomplished mattered little after a loss. I still thought it was worth a mention.