Shane Battier rose from the right corner and popped a three-pointer to knot the game and maybe salvage the Rockets' miserable 12-loss start. A comatose crowd awoke, and hope was reborn.
Houston's 109-99 victory marked the L.A. Lakers' fourth-straight defeat, the first such streak with Pau Gasol in the fold. Desperate to beat anybody in any gym, the Rockets should celebrate a triumph against the defending champions, even if an aging Kobe Bryant and company played a tight affair the previous night in Memphis.
One "W" did not alter the pecking order. Phil Jackson's squad still hoisted the last two gold trophies, and everyone else in the NBA is still chasing and craving their recent postseason excellence. The Lakers, even after going south of late, remain light years ahead of the Rockets in most of the categories that matter.
For one, Jackson can count on Kobe Bryant to close out ballgames more than Rick Adelman can rely on Shane Battier as his Mariano Rivera. Still, the Wednesday night win was the kind that can rescue a lost season.
Beating the reigning best team in the league under any circumstance allows the Rockets to talk about a turnaround and a playoff push again. Houston did it without its starting point guard and center. Aaron Brooks and Yao Ming could each return next week, perhaps adding another reason for optimism.
A 6-12 record is lousy and indicative of a squad with more issues than Mel Gibson and more holes than a plywood target at a shooting range. The Rockets require an overhaul, or at least a face lift, if they ever want to discuss raising a third banner in the Toyota Center rafters.
Houston might not compete for a title this season, but 50 wins and a postseason series victory remain in the cards. The Rockets' December schedule affords them the chance to reach the .500 mark before 2011. To obliterate and lose the "cupcake" tag, they must trounce a lineup of opponents in a similar bind.
|Fri 03||@ Memphis||7:00pm||FSNHOU|
|Sat 04||@ Chicago||7:00pm||KTXH||WGN America|
|Tue 07||vs Detroit||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Fri 10||@ Milwaukee||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Sat 11||vs Cleveland||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Tue 14||vs Sacramento||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Wed 15||@ Oklahoma City||7:00pm||FSNHOU|
|Fri 17||vs Memphis||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Sun 19||@ Sacramento||5:00pm||FSNHOU|
|Mon 20||@ Golden State||9:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Wed 22||@ LA Clippers||9:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Mon 27||vs Washington||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Wed 29||vs Miami||7:30pm||FSNHOU|
|Fri 31||vs Toronto||6:00pm||FSNHOU|
Of the opponents on this month's slate, just three—Miami, Oklahoma City and Chicago—harbor legitimate hopes of challenging for a conference crown. Milwaukee, once feared as a dark horse East spoiler, looks like a group of deer staring at an armada of oncoming semis with its brights on full blast.
Three back-to-back sets will test the Rockets, but they can afford to lose one or two of those trap contests and still catch up in the playoff chase. A 10-4 finish, which seems plausible, will get them back to .500.
The team rediscovered its winning formula Wednesday night and now must apply it with consistency. The unflappable competitiveness that defined the Rockets for much of last year roared into the picture.
Houston, with apologies to Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, lacks a superstar. L.A. boasts two in Bryant and Pau Gasol. Few squads can expect to out-talent the explosive Lakers.
The Rockets, then, needed to out-hustle their Hollywood foes, and they did. The Rockets' bigs coveted every 50-50 ball, and secured many of them on sheer effort alone. Kyle Lowry helped the team cut down on its turnover total after halftime. The shooters, for better or worse, let if fly without hesitation.
When winning time arrived, Adelman's squad emerged on the right side of the finishing run. Sunday's victory against Oklahoma City required equal parts luck and grit. The best free-throw shooting squad in the NBA had missed eight, and Kevin Durant bricked a contested but high-percentage game-winning look he would take 365 days a year. The Thunder closed the joust on a 14-6 tear. The Rockets survived a parade of empty trips on offense, after Battier's "shimmy" floater yielded a 99-93 Houston lead.
The Rockets made sure happenstance played a much lesser role in their Wednesday win. Noted Rocket killer Gasol connected on just two baskets in 38 minutes. Maybe his hamstring did indeed inhibit his usual production. Maybe the Lakers are bored in early December, knowing the defining push for a fourth straight Finals appearance will come in March. Jackson, a brilliant sideline chief, knew a 5-12 opponent riddled with injuries and the luck of a Spinal Tap drummer would not offer its sympathy.
Lowry was solid, though he will not drill wide-angle three-pointers with any frequency. Battier scored 11 of his 17 points in the final frame. Chase Budinger put together a fine 10-point outing, draining two triples, an easy dunk and a key layup. Jordan Hill grabbed just four rebounds, but he made the most of his increased daylight.
Luis Scola struck early and did enough late to justify his extended burn. He sank critical free throws and a jumper.
The Rockets, as constructed, cannot play any better than they did Wednesday. The Lakers, Gasol in particular, will be much tougher when the games matter most.
What happened in the fourth quarter should resonate with Adelman's squad for a while. After the Lakers hit the Rockets with a blistering early run, punctuated by back-to-back three-point plays from Matt Barnes, they punched back.
If they play with the same intensity during this December stretch that includes dates with a slew of dreadful teams projected as dregs long before opening night, they will move from the NBA's basement to its main floor, where the other playoff hopefuls reside.
The Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, Magic, Mavs and eventually the Heat may occupy the highest level, but the Rockets can at least approach respectability and become the 50-plus win squad Adelman and GM Daryl Morey envisioned.
Yes, Battier rose and dropped a three-pointer that ignited a sleepy crowd. It might have saved a season, too.