Houston Rockets Begin New Year with Same Problems from 2010

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJanuary 7, 2011

The stroke of midnight Dec. 31 marked the start of 2011 and a chance for many to begin self-improvement projects and new life chapters.

All across Houston, residents shouted “Happy New Year” against a backdrop of fireworks, the clink-clank of champagne glasses and the joyous cacophony of party favor noisemakers.

The city’s pro basketball team slept through the buoyant celebration. The Rockets, it seems, forgot their clocks and calendars. No one set a cell phone alarm. If they were drunk, it was not on the good stuff.

The signs they would miss the conclusion of 2010 appeared throughout December. The Rockets blew and overcame commanding leads, the defense still faltered and the abundance of lackadaisical stretches and egregious mistakes portended doom when the schedule turned from sweet as cupcakes to hideous. Consider Houston repulsed.

The Rockets obliterated a slew of lottery-bound losers en route to a .500 record by New Year’s Eve. They improved enough after a 0-5 start to handle the L.A. Clippers, Sacramento Kings and other dreadful outfits of that ilk.

Forget a return to November. The Rockets now find themselves back in the previous January. Even after an active trade deadline, an offseason and a training camp, the team has managed to regress.

The schedule may read “2011,” but the Rockets have not turned the page. They cannot win without drilling a boatload of three-pointers. The franchise lacks a healthy anchor. The head coach continues to scramble to assemble a rotation that functions as a playoff-caliber unit. Opponents with size or above average athleticism demolish Houston’s inferior interior resistance. Yao Ming is one of three injured cogs.

Sound familiar?

If Public Address Announcer John Paul Stevenson slipped in a date ending with 2010 when advertising the next home game, would the fans inside Toyota Center notice?

The Rockets were supposed to build on a respectable 42-40 finish. They were expected to demonstrate superior execution on both ends. Instead, the defense still has more massive openings than the Grand Canyon. Foes still line up for a buffet of high-percentage fourth-quarter looks. The offense crumbles late far too often.

Wednesday night, all of the squad’s shortcomings collided in another awful crunch-time implosion. A 100-103 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers might rank as the worst loss of the last two years.

The limping Blazers beat the Rockets for the second time this week without the services of Brandon Roy or Greg Oden. Joel Pryzbilla has struggled to find a rhythm in his return. Nicolas Batum played 38 minutes on a sprained ankle.

If ever there was a game the Rockets needed to find some way to steal, this was it. As usual, they called the cops on themselves just before completion of the heist.

If ever there was an opponent that could relate to Houston’s injury woes, Portland was it. The Rockets stumbled through a clumsy, pathetic effort Sunday night at the Rose Garden. On Wednesday, they competed but forgot the intelligence or execution part of the equation.

The following numbers should leave Rick Adelman and Daryl Morey more disturbed than Haley Joel Osment’s character in “The Sixth Sense.” At least that kid saw dead people.

The Rockets bagged 11 triples to the Blazers' seven. The Rockets attempted 30 free throws to the Blazers' 19. The Rockets suffered through a nine-and-a-half minute, fourth-quarter field goal drought. They donated a 13-point lead as quickly as they had purchased it, courtesy of rare stops and Kevin Martin’s unconscious shooting.

The NBA’s finest defensive team would have struggled to put away its worst with that ineptitude. Who would Adelman vote as an early Defensive Player of the Year pick? Not any of his youngsters. That’s for sure.

The above numbers indicate a squad headed for a 0-5 week, a sub-.500 record and heaping helpings of blowout defeats. If the Rockets cannot cruise when they hit that many long-distance shots, get 45 points from Kevin Martin and attempt 11 more foul shots, doing both against the opponent they must leapfrog to secure the eighth spot, how will they survive the rest of this January's murderer’s row?

The Orlando Magic, at this rate, will shellac them by 20, if the Rockets get that lucky. With Chuck Hayes sidelined by an ankle sprain, none of the remaining bigs bothered LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers emerging All-Star candidate proved a person can indeed devour a Thanksgiving feast on Jan. 5.

Adelman must shudder when he ponders what Dwight Howard might do Friday night. From cold sweats to getting carved up like a turkey, this week figures to end in gruesome fashion for a coach with a Hall of Fame resume.

How about those youngsters with potential? None of them have realized it yet.

Chase Budinger looked like a more disciplined defender in November. What a hoax. When he became mired in a shooting slump, he let his inaccuracy torpedo every other aspect of his game. He makes a few jump shots per contest, but when will he learn to use his athleticism to become a consistent finisher at the rim? Will he ever do that?

Jordan Hill still swings wildly from a productive, potential impact performer to a listless, out-of-position waste of an athletic specimen.

Terrence Williams, acquired in December for his two-way abilities, needs to play a lot more before Adelman can gauge the forward’s usefulness. Morey loved his upside, the GM's favorite buzzword and jettisoned a first-rounder and Jermaine Taylor to clear roster space for Williams. The early read after six minutes of action Wednesday night: He can do everything except pass the ball and make simple plays. He deserves a proper chance to prove he can contribute. His budding defensive chops could help.

Aaron Brooks was erratic and turnover-prone before his right ankle sprain. He re-aggravated the injury earlier this week and did not suit up against the Blazers. The Rockets would love to see him build on a campaign that won him the Most Improved Player award, but he must first stay on the court enough to regain his explosiveness. Brooks without speed is like a Tex-Mex Restaurant without tacos.

Kyle Lowry recorded an 18-assist game in December, but he has since returned to a level that suggests he is best utilized as a change-of-pace reserve.

Adelman used a Brooks-Lowry backcourt to fend off the Washington Wizards last week. That combo would pay dividends, again, if Brooks could get healthy.

Courtney Lee shifts from dead-eye shooter, adhesive defender and prolific slasher to just deadweight when his shots hit the back or front iron. Adelman needs so much more from Lee than he is getting.

The veterans? Things get messy and murky with them, too.

Shane Battier, ever the veteran voice of reason, cannot disguise every mistake the clueless youngsters make on the defensive end. He also tends not to hit much of anything—the side of a barn, an ocean liner or a rim—on the road. An increasingly unathletic 6’7” small forward should not lead the team in blocked shots.

Hayes, all 6’6” of him, should not rank as so vital to a near last-place defense. He makes so many admirable hustle plays and knows how to get physical with forwards several inches taller. The shortest starting center in NBA history cannot, however, be the only interior presence that spells defense, much less practices it.

Martin drops more bombs than a military aircraft but is a frail and often helpless defender.

Luis Scola never cheats when it comes to effort, but opponents with passable vertical leap or springs in their steps can run circles around him. He can score around the rim with either hand from either box. He can spin his man to the point of nausea. His mid-range jumper is also snazzy and reliable.

On the nights his shots fall flat, such as Wednesday, he looks flat-footed and ill equipped for the rigors of his expanded role. A better defensive cast would accentuate his blue-collar relentlessness and endear him again to those who have soured on his flaws.

Brad Miller can run the offense in spurts, drill a few three-pointers and use his self-described “slowest first step in the league” to attack the cup. On occasion, he commits a hard foul or bumps an opponent off his preferred spot. Otherwise, he is a 34-year-old, bonafide defensive stiff.

Patrick Patterson plays with a refreshing awareness on both ends and looks, thus far, to be worth every bit of the 14th pick Morey spent to acquire him. He needs more than a few weeks of steady daylight to ferment. No one expected him to take an NBA court and flex omniscience.

The resulting rotation ups the difficulty level of Morey’s job. Can the front office justify parting ways with relative kids who still have a shot to become the cure the brain trust craves? How much developmental time is too much?

At what point will the atrocious, at times humiliating defense cause Adelman, Morey and even owner Leslie Alexander to upchuck, load a stick of dynamite in the team’s core and blast it to bits?

It was impossible to avoid cringing every time Aldridge touched the ball Wednesday night. Or when Rudy Fernandez caught the ball beyond the arc with no one there to pester him. Or when Batum did the same.

The scouting report still somehow eludes the Rocket employees quick and gifted enough to heed it.

Oregonian writer Jason Quick said the Blazers saved their season with Wednesday’s victory. The Rockets, then, lost theirs.

Four more three-pointers equated to a 12-point edge in that category. Nine more made free throws. A 13-point fourth-quarter lead offset a double-figure deficit in the second period. A nine-game winning streak against Portland, including the playoffs, at Toyota Center loomed large. Martin tied the record for points scored by a single player in the building. How many more advantages could Houston have squandered?

How much longer will this “play hard” shtick allow the Rockets to hover around .500? Are they closer to the Cleveland Cavaliers or the San Antonio Spurs, the league's polar opposites?

Alexander spends whatever necessary to pursue championships, not the eighth seed or mediocrity. His franchise is no closer to its third title than it was the previous January.

Happy New Year? The first week of 2011 has been anything but for the Rockets.


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