The Houston Rockets home opener Saturday promised to deliver entertainment, thrills, another dose of a still rehabilitating Yao Ming and plenty of fans in Halloween attire.
Some spectators donned the legendary red and black outfit that the late Michael Jackson sported in his "Thriller" video. Others payed homage to the Grim Reaper, the Rockets Power Dancers, Star Wars characters, the Mad Hatter and Lady Gaga. The arena's music director even managed to eschew the traditional rap and 80s rock jams to give a proper holiday nod to Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" theme.
Denver Nuggets forward Al Harrington, though, managed the evening's best costume. He covered himself in a Harry Potter-like cloak that made him invisible to the players assigned to defend him.
The aghast fans could see him parked downtown with an eternity to catch the ball and release it in rhythm. Anonymous reports from team officials revealed that Luis Scola still had not located Harrington's whereabouts as of 2 a.m., hours after a humbling 107-94 loss that dropped the Rockets to an unenviable 0-3 mark.
There was indeed a brouhaha at Toyota Center. A chunk of the near-capacity crowd made unmistakable noise from the first quarter through the fourth. "He's open! He's wide open!" Instead of building on the hyped atmosphere that greeted Yao's entrance during the starting introductions, the Rockets forced fans to scream about something the scouting report should have made obvious.
Harrington can drain 3s when his defender is 50 feet away, underneath the basket, and lost in a mysterious daze. The career 36 percent 3-point shooter has upped his accuracy in the previous three years. A perusal, maybe just a glance, at that pregame informational would have clued in the sad sack of forwards who could not keep track of Harrington.
Scola was not the only sinner, but he was the worst of the pack. Harrington laughed his way to 28 easy points. Houston was lucky he missed 14 of his 24 shots—as in, luckier than a survivor in the popular Saw series.
His razor-blade like slashing was not an endurance test or a bloody revenge adventure. Instead, it was a condemnation of a cast that could use a Webster's Dictionary when it comes to the word "defense."
The initial shot coverage improved after Wednesday's shootout in Golden State. The Nuggets connected on a paltry 38 percent of their shots, and Carmelo Anthony finished just two of his 10 second-half attempts. Forget that encouraging number, or the 41-percentage figure the Rockets yielded in L.A. The final score factors into a team's defensive grade, too. Call this one another porous stinkfest.
If they did not finish a should-have-been-successful defensive trip with a rebound, the players on the court failed to negotiate screens or Denver's simplistic ball movement. The best squads can find the open man before the opponent's point guard or designated ballhandler does. Like a Bill Murray movie, the Rockets were lost in translation.
The little things count in key basketball games as much as the big picture. That is why Harrington's night ranks as such an embarrassment.
Top-tier scorers can bag tough shots. Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry did this ad nauseum throughout Wednesday's you score-I score affair. Rick Adelman must now figure out how to get his most important rotation cogs to force more difficult looks at various angles.
Harrington did what any wide-open player should. When he was done making the Rockets—Scola in particular—pay, they were out of lunch money and acceptable excuses.
An 0-3 start is never a death sentence, but it rarely portends a championship finish. The last time Houston dropped three in a row to start the year, it donated two more and bowed out with less than 35 wins. Hakeem Olajuwon still played here, as did Charles Barkley. Steve Francis began his tenuous tenure. A cadre of NBA has-beens and destined-to-disappoint youngsters lined that roster.
Many still think this one is capable of 50-plus wins and at least one postseason series victory. The talent level suggests that is a still-attainable goal. The developing trend says otherwise.
In the three fourth quarters the Rockets have played, they have surrendered 35, 28, and 35 points. Teams that win playoff rounds do not allows these totals on a routine basis.
Adelman's Yao-less bunch often sputtered on the defensive end late because of lackluster size. Yao and Brad Miller added more beef in the middle this offseason, but so far, it has proven undercooked and unsubstantial. Erick Dampier's imminent arrival will shore up some of the interior struggles and help the Rockets shave a few numbers off the hideous points-allowed average.
Courtney Lee excelled as a rookie one-on-one defender in Orlando. Shane Battier still meticulously studies and carries out his scouting report-based plan of coverage. Chuck Hayes uses tricks and trenchancy to stymie bigger, lankier forwards and centers. Chase Budinger has flexed a refined defensive approach. He may not become an all-world stopper, but he did not perturb himself during stands in which he matched up against Anthony.
Jordan Hill is athletic and mobile but has managed just one cameo in three games. Scola, Aaron Brooks, and Kevin Martin, at times, comprise the league's worst defenseless three.
Martin drew a pair of charges on Nuggets guard Aaron Afflalo. Brooks and Kyle Lowry stuck with Chauncey Billups during a few stretches. Miller, at least, knew where Nene was and respected him.
Yao still looks rustier than an El Camino rotting in a junkyard. He delivered 14 points, his most since the 2009 playoffs, but the Nuggets crippled frontline shoved him out of position too often, and he missed several gimme hook shots and rebounds. Yao must learn again to battle for his preferred spot, and his defensive and offensive awareness needs to ameliorate with his conditioning.
He did record a spectacular block on Nene but was not productive or efficient enough in his 22 minutes of daylight. These elements will return soon enough. The high-octane offense will click within the month.
One play, in which Budinger flushed an open-court pass from Lowry, showed the team's scoring aptitude. The players can learn not to continue to jack up errant 3-pointers when they are 1-for-14 from beyond the arc.
Teams that focus solely on outscoring foes, however, collected zero championships in the previous 20 years. No one can expect this group to approximate the Detroit "Bad Boy" Pistons or Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, but it must get better on the uphill end of the court.
Saturday's crunch-time defense befit Halloween. It was scarier than The Exorcist and more lifeless than the script of a made-for-TV slasher flick. The Rockets victimized themselves.
When a Brooks trey that would have knotted the score at 92 rimmed out and Chauncey Billups swished a three at the other end, everyone in the building knew how this one would end. Even Norman Bates would have decried the anti-climactic final result.
The goal now, as the Rockets prepare to host an undefeated Hornets team that just snapped a five-game losing streak in San Antonio, should be simple. If the defense resembles a movie, Adelman needs more Psycho than The Horse Whisperer.
There might have been a Bates impersonator Saturday night, but that costumed fan was not cheering the arrival of the home opener or Yao's career revival. He was screaming, "He's open! He's wide open!"
Scola just wishes his nightmarish defense, and the team's 0-3 start, could escape his vision the way Harrington did.
Invisibility cloak? Harrington did Harry Potter proud.