Sometimes, with these Rockets, it's now how much the opponent scores, but who does it.
Early in Saturday night's 106-102 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, choke artist extraordinaire Peja Stojakovic gathered himself beyond the arc and caught a pinpoint pass from Jason Kidd. No one in home white was within shouting distance of the Serbian, who buried a devastating left corner triple.
Stojakovic did not stop there. On the next possession, he posted up Chase Budinger for profit. He abused every man assigned to check him en route to 22 of the easiest points of his career. The Rockets must heed this lesson: playoff teams cannot allow Peja freaking Stojakovic to score 22 points.
A few years ago, he still had the juice to burn foes committed to harassing Chris Paul. A different, less effective Stojakovic should have been a feeding trough for Houston. Instead, the Rockets left another one-dimensional player wide open and shriveled when the same results became killer ones.
Asked about the importance of the season's longest homestand, Rick Adelman called it a "make or break" stretch. The sound, then, that followed a second consecutive home loss was not the typical post-defeat music. Snap. Crackle. Pop.
When the Rockets needed to make noise and hold serve against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Mavericks, their responses were as brittle as breakfast cereal, but hardly as sweet. Morning has broken in Houston. So have the Rockets.
They won tough games in Atlanta, Boston and Utah. They spent most of December turning a despicable road record into a respectable one. If they could triumph at home more often, they might not trail the No. 8 seeded Portland Trail Blazers by more than five games.
Home is supposed to be where the heart is. For the Rockets, it has become the desolate, non-descript building where even 13 win cellar dwellers can leave with a victory. A 14-12 record at Toyota Center spells another lottery trip.
The quest to improve that mark continues tonight against Carmelo Anthony and his playoff-bound Denver Nuggets. The All-Star break beckons and the stretch-run looms.
If the Rockets want to make something of the season's final months, they better start at home.
Yes, the atmosphere would pass for the city's public library if not for the Red Rowdies. The NBA's loudest, most boisterous fan group brings the heart and passion the Rockets should each time they emerge from the Tundra Tunnel.
Lots of professional sports franchises play in half-empty arenas and stadiums. Memphis, Charlotte, Atlanta and New Orleans come to mind. Yet, the Grizzlies, Hornets and Hawks boast superior home marks.
The Rockets must find a way to overcome the dead moments and the hundreds of vacant seats. Saturday evening's furious rally also proved the fan engagement concept does exist in Houston. When Shane Battier drilled a three-pointer to slice a once 23 point deficit to 10, the crowd came alive—well, as much as it has since a double-figure rally against the Washington Wizards.
Crews did not install special rims at the Toyota Center. The court dimensions remain the same in every NBA venue. The Rockets should play with the same intensity in every gym, but if there was one place to ratchet it up a bit, wouldn't it be their own?
I could use a number of head-scratching statistics to explain Houston's dismal 25-30 record. A disturbing one printed this morning by NBA.com's John Schuhmann—that Chuck Hayes has scored three fewer points this season than Aaron Brooks—should cause concern.
Nothing can trump 12 home losses. The league-leading San Antonio Spurs have dropped just two contests at the AT&T Center. The Rockets cannot afford to surrender more than that the rest of the way.
The Spurs visit twice, the Celtics and Hawks each invade once, the Mavericks return for one more joust and the Jazz will bring back their cacophony. The rest of the home dates involve opponents hovering near or well below the .500 mark. If the Rockets can win all of those, plus steal three of those aforementioned meetings, they give themselves a shot to stay in the postseason chase.
Sometimes, it's not just how these Rockets lose, but where they do it. Tuesday's and Saturday's defeats illuminated the squad's worst qualities. Defense came at a premium, late-game execution was lacking and visiting scrubs delivered volcanic performances.
When Stojakovic pours in 22 against a quality defensive team, let me know. If he helps the Mavericks at all when the playoffs arrive, tap me on the shoulder. All he's ever done is gag when the pressure mounts.
All Adelman could do Saturday was watch Stojakovic tear through his squad's paper-thin coverage. Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion leveled heaping helpings of abuse in the second quarter. Another botched comeback at Toyota Center cemented a dreadful theme.
The Rockets should bring heart and passion when they play at home. Instead, they bring the clunk.
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