Ho-Ho-Houston Rockets: Team's .500 Record a Gift Worth a Celebration

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IDecember 28, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 22:  Kevin Martin #12 of the Houston Rockets reaches to control the ball in front of Eric Gordon #10 of the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on December 22, 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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Midway through the first quarter, the Rockets' music director did the unthinkable.

He unleashed something in the Toyota Center worse than the Washington Wizards' road record.

Hey Macarena!

The unwelcome return of a deplorable dance number seemed like the evening's sure-fire low-light moment. Then, the Rockets decided Los Del Rio's timeout cameo needed some competition and put together a stretch of lackadaisical play fit for proper roasting by this writer.

The Wizards, though, outdid the one-hit wonder and Rockets by living up their 0-15 mark away from the Verizon Center in the final frame.

Houston—a franchise in search of largess after a stress fracture ended Yao Ming's season for a second time—should thank its lucky stars that a home date with Washington is the gift that keeps on giving.

For those who love an understatement, Flip Saunders can stop clearing shelf space for a Coach of the Year trophy. The Wizards can still experience the rush of the postseason—if they can bear to watch winning basketball from the couch. I saw some great post-Christmas deals for flat-screen TVs in Sunday's Houston Chronicle.

When the playoffs arrive in April, Javale McGee and Andray Blatche should avoid sports bars and nightclubs and stay home; neither could land enough punches in the Rockets' 100-93 win Monday night.

Rick Adelman surely did not invite Saunders to a pity party after another road defeat added to tarnished Washington's Christmas weekend misery.

Houston's coach could have channeled Justin Timberlake and tweaked the lyrics to one of his mega hits. Cry me a river. But don't pull a gun.

Thank goodness Adelman and the Rockets boast more class than me. Thank goodness the Wizards crunch-time execution in opposing gyms qualifies as stand-up comedy.

The home team's play through three-and-a-half quarters was no laughing matter. A few timely stops and three-pointers changed that and prevented the proverbial Grinch from stealing away a present one month in the making.

The Rockets earned this gift thanks to last week's 3-0 sojourn to Sacramento, Golden State and L.A.

Sometimes, unwrapping and opening the damn thing is the hardest part. The Rockets fumbled with the mailing tape and could not locate scissors to expedite the process. They knew what they were getting themselves.

They just had to go, uh, get it.

An 0-5 start threatened to torpedo a once promising season; Yao's latest injury setback was the ultimate bummer for him, his teammates, distraught fans and the NBA; the defense ranked as the league's worst and Adelman could not have trusted any of his veterans to close a Starbucks, much less a quarter.

Mr. Claus came late, but as the final buzzer sounded Monday night, the thud of his sleigh on the Toyota Center roof could be heard above Kool and the Gang's "Celebration."

Merry Christmas indeed.

An early .500 mark for the Miami Heat prompted talk of Armageddon and another Pat Riley-led coup d'etat. A 15-15 record in late December will do for the Rockets.

Given the circumstances, the accomplishment merits a brief celebration.

Ok, you can stop dancing now.

All the Rockets wanted this month was to return to the playoff hunt. The horrid start halted any summer discussions of title contention and necessitated a December to remember. The Rockets win against the Wizards was their fifth in a row.

They can now smell the Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Hornets and Denver Nuggets.

Those four squads helped Houston's cause of late by slip-sliding and tumbling. Portland won in Utah just after Houston dispatched Washington but not before losing Marcus Camby to an ankle injury. The Rockets play the 15-loss Blazers twice next week and could leapfrog them then. The Hornets suffered an embarrassing loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, their 13th of the year.

The list of 15 victims includes a who's who of the NBA's worst.

The L.A. Clippers, Kings, Timberwolves and Warriors, barring miracle finishes, will join the Wizards in Secaucus. The New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers will, at best, claim one of the final three playoff spots in a weaker Eastern Conference.

The Rockets mixed in home wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and L.A. Lakers for good measure.

Adelman's squad will get plenty of chances to prove it can topple quality opponents, courtesy of a brutal January slate. The Rockets needed to approach .500 by this week to give themselves a small cushion in advance of an itinerary heavy on heavyweights.

If the Wizards and Kings bring up the NBA's rear, the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks lead the pack.

And the team headed here Wednesday employs three guys named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "Merry Christmas" will soon become "welcome to hell."

The Rockets made it all matter by beating the Wizards and setting up a probable 11-4 finishing kick to 2010.

The Miami Heat deserve to be favored by a bunch, given how the Three Me-Egos demolished the two-time defending champs Saturday afternoon, leaving Kobe Bryant the angriest 30-something male in Hollywood. The Toronto Raptors, though, should not waste the jet fuel.

If the Rockets have been dreadful in Toronto, the Raptors have been as caustic in Houston. I guaranteed Monday's victory and plan to do the same on New Year's Eve.

The Rockets could, of course, shock the Super Friends on Wednesday. Gander at the final scores between Houston and Miami last season, consider the Heat's defense of late and then tell me a victory would not rank as a surprise. Either way, the Rockets should enter 2011 no worse than 16-16.

That should be enough to keep them in the chase, if not the passenger's seat, for the eighth seed. They may yet take the wheel.

None of the other challengers can anticipate the full returns of key cogs (Sorry Brandon Roy). Aaron Brooks, the league's most improved player from a year ago, sprained his right ankle Nov. 6 and did not see the court again until last week. He is slowly rediscovering his form.

He trudged through a 5-for-15 night but scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, drilled a late three-pointer and assisted on the backbreaking one from Kevin Martin.

Adelman turned to the Brooks-Kyle Lowry combo to close the game and did not regret the decision. The pair ignited the 28-11 run that turned the contest in the Rockets favor. Martin, in rare displays of defensive aptitude, blocked a shot and recorded a steal to go along with 20 points. Shane Battier drained six of seven shots en route to 15 points. Luis Scola chipped in a workmanlike 14 points.

Jordan Hill and Brooks did enough off the bench to compensate for forgettable outings from Brad Miller, Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee. Hill flexed his improved post game, highlighted by a sweeping hook shot Blatche and McGee had no chance to block. He even swished a 20-footer.

The Rockets will need to play much better all around to knock off any of the big boys on the horizon, but Monday's win afforded them the chance to give it a try. A second loss to the woeful Wizards might have spelled goodnight.

Instead, Houston recovered from its no-show lulls to remind Washington of its ineptitude. Down seven with more than minute remaining, Saunders opted not to foul the rest of the way. A free-throw contest might have prolonged his agony.

If John Wall also helped the Rockets by bricking four of his 13 free-throw attempts, the home team still needed to take advantage of the rare charity. If the Wizards keep on giving, the Heat keep on throttling. Many of the Rockets upcoming opponents will present similar challenges.

The guys in red prepared for murderer's row by sweeping through the buffet line last week. A month ago, even that was not possible.

Now, with tangible improvement in a several-week span, a .500 record should get the Rockets off the launch pad and keep them in the playoff race. They withstood furious runs at a rocking Oracle Arena and at Staples Center. They handled Sacramento's anemic offense in a decisive fourth quarter push.

They left an 0-5 opening in the dust and will spend the rest of the season sparring with the Hornets, Nuggets, Blazers and Suns for one of the final postseason slots. A 15-15 mark is not ideal, but it will do, as the team shifts from the seventh easiest schedule to the sixth toughest.

For much of Monday night, the Rockets threatened to destroy their belated Christmas gift. With the game, and a month's work, on the line, Brooks and Martin made sure the Wizards would not impede Santa's expected arrival any longer.

This win made everything that preceded it tolerable. Even the Macarena.


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