A professional basketball team from Southern California led the Houston Rockets at home after three quarters Wednesday night. The “Beat L.A.” chant made a cameo appearance inside Toyota Center.
The Rockets, fortunately, were playing the one that tends to beat itself. The Clippers, much to the Rockets’ relief, still rank as the other Staples Center tenants. A glance at the rafters of that arena reveals one of the biggest mismatches in sports history. The Lakers boast 16 championships, 31 NBA Finals appearances, a gazillion division titles (so many the franchise does not commemorate them with banners) and countless postseason berths. The Clippers have reached the playoffs twice in franchise history. For Donald Sterling’s outfit, the accolades and accomplishments end there.
The latest edition of Hollywood’s punch bag stepbrother has shown promise, with a high-flying, highlight-reel ready forward stealing the show and the Rookie of the Year race. The Rockets thwarted an early challenge from Blake Griffin’s crew and cruised late to a much-needed 96-83 victory. L.A. played a tough game in Dallas the previous night and lost leading scorer Eric Gordon until after the All-Star break, but who’s heckling?
As a murderous January nears completion, the Rockets are not about to feign sympathy or give back any games as a nice press conference gesture. They did plenty of that on the court. The Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder experienced Christmas again when each played the Rockets and benefited from a series of inexcusable Houston choke jobs.
Rick Adelman did not pull a deep “Ho Ho Ho” from his belly or allow any opposing players to sit in his lap like anxious children. Tis’ not the season to give away games.
When it came to January defense, Adelman had an embarrassment of matadors, not riches. It did not take a hard-charging bull, though, to get to the rim against Houston. The Rockets’ recent futility made Wednesday’s final score refreshing and essential. Adelman’s crippled squad turns in a shutdown defensive clinic as often as William Hung sings in key.
Rockets fans should not get used to contests where the opponent fails to crack 90. The Clippers clanged some doable shots during the decisive fourth-quarter stretch in which they converted just one of 20 attempts. Gordon’s absence and fatigue became disadvantages L.A. could not overcome. The Rockets’ defense, then, falls somewhere between Wednesday and the god-awful brand they played in Minneapolis.
If the light suddenly came on in Houston, it will not stay lit. Seemingly fragile, the Rocket's defense did not do so well. Too many rotation cogs have been dreadful on that end for Houston to morph into the second coming of the 1996-1997 Chicago Bulls in the span of three days.
The Timberwolves racked up 125 points Monday night. The Clippers managed just 83. The abrasive difference in those results says as much about L.A.’s woeful road record (3-15) and Gordon’s injury as it does Houston’s ability to manufacture stops.
If the Rockets, though, can stop producing sorry defensive efforts in Monday’s mold and bottle up how they competed in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, they have a shot at a .500 record by the break. The defense will still be bad, but it does not have to approach dubious franchise records, either. Something in the middle would suit Adelman just fine—say, the fourth-quarter against the Mavericks.
The Clippers scored 10 points in the final frame and connected on just 36 percent of their field goal tries. Chuck Hayes smothered Griffin and harangued the rookie into a 5-for-16 night. Hayes’ reward: a Thursday matchup with MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. Soon, he’ll get Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and the Al Jefferson-Paul Millsap combo again. Nene looms large, as does another date with Zach Randolph.
When the Rockets finish a week’s run that includes the Spurs, Lakers, Jazz, Grizzlies and Nuggets, the schedule becomes manageable again. Might the Rockets have one more December-like charge in them? Given that the foes ahead of the Rockets in the standings continue to hover around the .500 mark, a February push might be enough to make the playoffs. It does not appear that ownership of the seventh or eighth seed requires 50 wins.
In a matter of days, the team that has earned the “Beat L.A.” chant will test the Rockets’ resolve. All the Spurs have done is roll up the league’s best record, 39 to seven, and the best start in franchise history. The Jazz, on a killer slide of late, will aim to protect a once rambunctious and dominant home-court advantage. The Grizzlies ended a lengthy losing streak against the Rockets a few weeks ago. The Nuggets won both earlier meetings versus the Rockets.
If that sounds daunting, so did Houston’s first week in January. The Rockets finished that initial stretch winless, on the brink of collapse and implosion. Yet, here they sit Friday afternoon, 22-26, with the Phoenix Suns, Blazers and Grizzlies within shouting distance.
Presented with another chance to topple a winning team for the first time since Dec. 1, Houston responded with a nightmare first half in which they were obliterated in every way imaginable. The 64 points the Mavericks tallied after two quarters was a season high.
Then, the Rockets awoke from a pathetic, inexplicable slumber and afforded themselves an opportunity to finish the biggest comeback in franchise history. From down 25 to within one, the Rockets onions-to-chocolate performance summed up the season in 48 agonizing-to-cliffhanging minutes. J.J. Barea’s 19 points—and his late stepback hit—made the difference. Missed lay-ups by Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, and a Kevin Martin three-point brick, foiled Houston’s rally.
So, how will the Rockets make a postseason push with such a flawed roster? They play the Mavericks at Toyota Center Feb. 12 and in the second to last game of the regular season. All they can do is win enough to make those games matter.
Beat L.A.? A victory against anyone will do these days.