Houston Rockets Ready for Liftoff After Clearing Winless Wall

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst INovember 10, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets looks to rebound during their opening night game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October 26, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets finally crashed through the last-place wall. Even with an undrafted rookie point guard at the helm, they look ready tonight to topple the Washington Wizards and their prized No. 1 pick with the same last name.

If the team reaches the once expected 50-win mark in five months, it will look back on last weekend as the one that saved a sinking, rudderless ship.

A dam broke inside Toyota Center on Sunday night. Even if the woeful, last-place Minnesota Timberwolves were the drowning victims, the flood still came. The die-hard fans and the distraught players had never waited so long to taste victory. No one on the current roster played here in 1999, the last time the team started 0-5.

Hours after the Houston Texans' embarrassing secondary allowed the crippled San Diego Chargers to have a field day and the offense sputtered in a 29-23 home loss, the Rockets rip roared through the Timber puppies' disgraceful defense in a 120-94 victory. The basketball squad had to pick up its own spirit in an NFL-crazed metropolis, but sometime soon, those pigskin addicts may turn to the round ball for sanctuary and solace.

The Rockets rediscovered the winning formula Saturday night in the defeat at San Antonio and put it to use in thrashing Minnesota. Beating up a starting five that includes all-time loser Darko Milicic ranks up there with beating an 80-year-old grandmother with a walker up three flights of stairs. Still, after enduring five consecutive losses, each gut-wrenching in their own way, the Rockets were not eager to diminish the accomplishment.

Yao Ming's return and strict 24-minute restriction handicapped the roster more than it helped. The uncertain nature of who plays when and how best to use the 7'6" center in limited daylight, per doctor's orders, continues to confound Rick Adelman. No other NBA head coach has dealt this season with a case as bizarre and rare as this one.

The Rockets had been torched by Marco Belinelli, Al Harrington, Shannon Brown and Jason Smith. Turnovers, missed rotations, trigger happy but inaccurate trey bombers and faulty crunch-time execution doomed Houston early.

Saturday night, and the horrible luck that followed, marked the start of the team's turnaround. Adelman opted to rest Yao versus the Spurs to utilize him against the 'Puppies. Aaron Brooks sprained his ankle just before the halftime buzzer and revealed to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen he will miss four to six weeks. Lowry skipped the contest with back spasms.

The Rockets trailed by 14 at the AT&T Center and then mounted the furious fourth-quarter rally that might save their season. Manu Ginobili forced overtime with a contested 16-footer, Tony Parker seized command in the extra minutes, and the Spurs escaped with a 124-121 victory. Yet, the final score, given the circumstances, mattered less than the effort and how it reminded of last season, when the Yao-less squad burned anyone who dared to underestimate it.

Rookie of the Year contender John Wall comes next. His Wizards remain the lone team in the association allowing foes to shoot better than 50 percent. Even the dynamic backcourt defensive tandem of Wall and Kirk Hinrich has not spared Flip Saunders from hasty humiliation.

The Rockets will know a thing or two about mortification when the ball tips in the nation's capitol. They spent all of two weeks clamoring and yearning for euphoria but instead encountered discomfiture, disillusionment and defeat after depressing defeat. Steve Blake drilled the coffin-sealing triple on opening night. Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry ran wild for 70-something combined points the next.

Scola, wearing an invisible blindfold on Halloween eve, could not locate Harrington. The defenseless Nuggets forward, seen by most analysts as an inadequate addition by Denver's unsettled front office, erupted for 28 points. The Rockets surrendered 35 fourth-quarter points in a haunting display. Chris Paul, Belinelli and the undefeated New Orleans Hornets crushed hopes and broke hearts last week with the daggers that yielded an 0-4 mark.

Paul, the subject of frequent summer trade speculation, danced to the hole with mere minutes left like he was leading a Mardi Gras parade. He coolly drilled the jumpers and delivered the dishes that sent ticket holders to the Toyota Center exits early to beat the traffic.

The daunting task of facing a championship-credentialed Spurs franchise on the road sent the faithless overboard. A paltry third quarter in the Alamo City prompted transient supporters to jump ship. What sounded like an Olympic scale swim meet was, in fact, a series of cannonballs.

Splash. Splash. Splash. Splash. Splash. Splash. The days of the "Clutch City" and "We Believe" slogans felt like centuries-old myths.

When all hope seemed lost, the Rockets turned to spirit and spunk. Those qualities carried and defined them last year when an undersized frontline and backcourt could not. Now, with rookie Smith forced to play in excess of 30 minutes as the emergency floor general, they need gallantry more than ever.

The Hornets, Spurs and Dallas Mavericks are entangled in a fascinating, pronto clash for Southwest Division supremacy. Before the Rockets can worry about catching up in the race, they must continue to build on Saturday and Sunday's supreme efforts. Winning two in a row qualifies as a start.

The upcoming schedule offers a chance to amass a quality streak and surpass the .500 mark. A perusal of the November itinerary should inspire optimism among fans and within the locker room.

Visits to Indiana and New York will test the Rockets' rattletrap coverage, but they should win both matches if they demonstrate the same determination that appeared a few days ago. Then, a home date against the Chicago Bulls and sojourn to Oklahoma City, on back-to-back nights, beckons. The bottom-feeding Toronto Raptors, the Amar'e-less Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats, Thunder and Dallas Mavericks round out the month.

Misfortune may hover over this organization like rain clouds in the northwest, but purposeful play and commitment from the 12 men available can help the squad overcome as it did last year. The 42-40 outfit started strong because the players concentrated on what they had versus the gaping hole that a missing interior giant created.

Anyone who expects the Rockets not to skip beats with the leading scorer and most improved player from a year ago sidelined should return to reality. With Brooks in a sport coat, seven to eight wins through Nov. 29 sounds about right. Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant on consecutive evenings portend at least one loss there. The close-to-full-strength Mavs might prove too much to handle.

Yet, a season that last Wednesday seemed destined to spiral out of control, is back in the Rockets' grasp. They cradled a well-earned victory after the Texans tossed an unforgivable interception. A winning mark glistens in the distance.

Yes, the issues still scream for a resolution that will not soon come: Yao's playing time limit, how to divide the small forward minutes between Chase Budinger and Shane Battier, the lack of a proven closer, a backcourt reduced to rubble and a rookie and the dissatisfaction that grips several sparsely used frontline pieces.

Yes, the Western Conference still looks like the superior club with at least eight potential 50-win units. Further slip-ups could cost the Rockets in March and April. Yes, Adelman still has no idea how to maximize his roster depth and also foster continuity.

The promise of a turnaround, though, is real. If the Rockets can harness the passion and anguish that yielded the stampede of the 'Puppies tonight, Wall and the Wizards might also leave the floor with a whimper.

The road to recovery starts there. Where it ends remains anyone's guess.