So much for lift-off.
After whipping the Minnesota Timberwolves and reeling off two straight against the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, the Houston Rockets crash landed like a shuttle with all of its engines blown out and now must digest a miserable 3-9 record. Houston surrendered in consecutive beatdowns and in a three-point home defeat that might sting for the rest of the season.
The Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors could have been mistaken for the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. The Rockets did not stop anyone on any of those squads when it counted.
Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, Al Harrington, Marco Belinelli, Jason Smith, Kyle Korver, Andrea Bargnani and Linas Kleiza have each circled a common future date on their calendars in the previous month.
None of them can wait to play the Rockets again, so they can light up the scoreboard and look good doing it. Houston, despite crippling injuries and a road-heavy early schedule, looks ready for Secaucus.
It would be fool-hearted for the team's supporters to give up hope 12 games into an 82-date campaign. Fans believe at all costs because it is their job to do so. Management, however, must know the returns of Aaron Brooks and Yao Ming will not provide a panacea.
The front office, headed by GM Daryl Morey, cannot allow the "we'll get better" charades to continue. This team has issues time will not fix. For one, the basketball and football franchises seem to be aligned when it comes to historic defensive ineptitude.
The Rockets might not allow the equivalent of 400 passing yards per contest, but they have done enough to warrant the criticism that accompanies yielding an average of 107 points on 46 percent shooting.
Different week, same problem. Maybe the Texans and Rockets can commiserate together. Texans Safety Bernard Pollard, who ranks in the NFL's top 10 in giving up big plays that lead to touchdowns, could show Kevin Martin a thing or two about tough talk. No one seems qualified, though, to put that gab into practice, aside from a few usual suspects not talented enough to compensate for the rest of the clueless stiffs.
Friday's effort was pathetic, even if the team led at several junctures and was close before the Raptors pulled away late. The Air Canada Centre has become the Rockets' version of Helga's House of Pain. Toronto, now 4-9, brought plenty of it from the start.
Tonight, the Phoenix Suns bring a 6-7 record and an offense that can still pour it on, even with Amar'e Stoudemire's defection to New York, to Toyota Center. A groin strain will sideline Steve Nash, making reserve spark plug Goran Dragic the probable starter at point guard.
Can the Rockets take advantage of some rare good fortune in their favor, or will Dragic become the latest salivating baller to shred through a defense that might struggle in a senior citizen's league? Hell, 76-year-old Bill Russell could decide to test his skills against Houston if this continues.
The man-to-man and team coverage would merit praise if the Rockets could duplicate the efforts at home versus Minnesota and at Madison Square Garden more often. Instead, those lockdown master clinics seem more like aberrations than the start of a trend.
Rick Adelman oversees the fifth most productive offense in the association, but the Rockets lack a passable go-to option on that end with Yao and Brooks unavailable. This team couldn't close a Wal-Mart or a coffee shop, much less a quarter in an NBA game.
Wednesday night, it was Battier missing a free throw that would have cut the Thunder's halftime lead to seven. Then, it was Scola fouling Russell Westbrook beyond the arc before the second quarter buzzer sounded. The Rockets trailed by 11, 64-53, instead of eight.
Friday night, Scola delivered the Rockets a brief third-quarter lead, 75-74, then the Raptors proceeded to score four straight baskets. When it comes to closing the deal, this teams squad knows as much about that art as Steve Carell's character in the 40-Year-Old Virgin.
No coach in sports history could win with this slapdash, abominable defense. Few could survive the grind with such a confused, inept crunch-time offense.
Two weeks ago, Scola's fast-break layup afforded the Rockets their last fourth quarter lead in Washington, 85-84. The Wizards then mounted a killer 10-0 run with a turnover-prone rookie at the helm and a similarly horrific half-court defense.
The excuses may come flying off the shelves like popular Christmas toys. Tough schedule. The back-to-back champs were too good and experienced on opening night. Too many road contests versus ones at home.
The author of the Lakers' game-winning shot was playing in his first ever regular season game in purple and gold. The sleepy, unfashionably late fans, aside from the dedicated Red Rowdies, and comical fourth-quarter lapses create a no-advantage atmosphere at Toyota Center. The Rockets have choked away final frame leads in every loss. What makes anyone think the venue matters?
Give Houston's pro basketball team a high school gym for the evening, and they will find a way to lose there, too. The squads atop the Western Conference have dealt with hardships, and the disparity or varying degrees should not tilt the discussion.
When the Rockets rolled into the AT&T Center without Kyle Lowry or Yao's services, and then lost Brooks at halftime, they played opposite a Spurs team missing reserve forward/center Matt Bonner. Anyone who considers the comparison laughable did not watch Bonner drill seven consecutive treys in Oklahoma City a week ago. The Spurs owe that paramount road victory to second-half defense and his shooting.
Lakers starting center Andrew Bynum has not played in a game since June 17, and when healthy, he can demolish pillow-soft frontlines by himself. The Hornets overcame uncertainty and a front office upheaval in speeding to an 11-1 record.
Did anyone expect a lineup with Emeka Okafor, who looked washed up and disengaged at times last season, and Smith, Belinelli and Willie Green to win at a pace that portends more than 55 victories?
The Nuggets limped into Houston Oct. 30 with key big men Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin out until January. Harrington, who dropped 28 points, had been playing through discomfort and some minor injuries.
The Rockets, much like the Portland Trail Blazers, could compare their luck over the last five years to Hurley from the now defunct TV drama Lost. No matter how many times Morey seems to win the lottery in a trade or with a draft pick, the house keeps falling down just after his pants do. Forgive him if he feels like the emperor with no clothes or Clarice Starling battling a sicker, crueler enemy than Hannibal Lecter.
Beyond the caustic defense, other obvious issues have plagued this last-place outfit. Chase Budinger, the team's best spot-up shooter and dunker, is hitting just 15 percent of his three-pointers and has thrown it down just four times. He was scoreless Friday in his return from injury. What is it with the Rockets and left ankle sprains?
Kyle Lowry established himself as one of the league's best change-of-pace point guards last season. He took charges and made remarkable hustle plays. Now, he's just taking bad shots and making 29 percent of them. Back spasms and similar ankle issues do not excuse his paltry selection.
Fans groaned when referees removed his late off-balance trey and leaner in Wednesday's loss. Replays showed the ball was still in his hands when the shot clock expired and the red light appeared. Instead of berating blatant calls, the Rockets' faithful should have bemoaned an offense that could not muster better attempts.
Good luck winning with those numbers.
Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes can still administer brutish, intelligent and admirable defensive performances, but they still can't score with a pencil. Budinger would merit more praise for the time he spent working on defensive fundamentals if he was not abusing the rims.
Then again, Raptors forward Linas Kleiza beat him to a pulp and treated him like a rag doll in Friday's loss. Courtney Lee's minute ration is not the only thing in fluctuation. His game also comes and goes. Adelman needs a lot more from Lee than he's getting.
Jordan Hill has looked like a lost mountain climber in need of a Sherpa. Ishmael Smith has heart and grit, not to mention superb court vision, but he would not have gone undrafted if he was destined to take over fourth quarters the way Rose did during the Bulls 18-0 spurt to open Wednesday's final period.
Brad Miller has given Adelman everything he could want as a role player who can pass and knock down uncontested jumpshots, but giving him starter's minutes exposes his flaws. His ability to protect the rim has not aged gracefully.
Martin earns nine free throw attempts a game, a fabulous number on paper, but he cannot manufacture enough points when the pressure-packed moments arrive. If Kobe Bryant is the NBA's best looking bride in the clutch, Martin is its most perplexing example of a bridesmaid posing as the wedding's star attraction.
He impresses during the rehearsal dinner and interlude, but when it comes time to walk down the aisle and say "I do," you might as well sing "Here comes the brick."
Scola, who still has not located Harrington, gets by on effort much more than talent. He has been the best and most consistent Rocket thus far, and that is another problem. The best teams boast No. 1 options who can slack off and still rank as plus players. Scola would be nothing more than a benchwarming body if his competitive juices did not fuel him so.
Sheer talent beats depth in a head-to-head race. Morey thought he had assembled a roster with plenty of both. Instead, the guys with the finest physical gifts too often appear sluggish and disinterested, and the workhorses cannot jump any higher or move any quicker.
Few in Houston, including this writer, ever imagined the Rockets would start 3-9. Now, many once jubilant fans wonder if the team will ever win again. Houston did not roar out of the gates when Brooks and Yao started. No one can expect the future re-additions to the lineup to transform this defense into an adequate one, especially when Yao's peak abilities following reconstructive foot surgery remain unknown.
Brooks and Yao, 20 points-per-game scorers at their best, can help the offense late in games, but can either approximate a superstar?
So much for liftoff.
The Rockets were supposed to fall into the NBA's abyss in the 2009-2010 campaign sans Yao's interior presence. They would take that 6-4 start in a heartbeat now.
The atrocious defense has been the worst of the myriad problems. If they want to stop a painful slide tonight, they must first stop somebody on the Suns with the game on the line.
After that, all Morey and Adelman have to do is worry about everything else. Forget lift-off. Mere engine noise in Houston might pass for beautiful music these days.
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