With one minute remaining in the first quarter of a late February 123-108 quashing of the New Jersey Nets, Rick Adelman removed the handcuffs, and—much to the delight of isolation-starved Rockets fans everywhere—freed Terrence Williams.
When he drove for his first of two baskets, the ankle bracelet that seemed to beep on the rare occasion he left the bench area became a shattered relic.
Patrick Patterson, Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee also played as if they had just exited a successful parole board hearing.
Budinger treated the Nets to an evening filled with posterization, free-throw attempts, layups and long-distance grenades. Look out below!
The rest of the Rockets followed with a similar prison break. No longer jailed by the supposed roster depth or the weight of failed postseason expectations, the players still around after the Feb. 24 trade deadline deals found the lacking urgency that had spurred Daryl Morey to reshape Houston’s roll call.
The Rockets rode that dogmatism all the way to an improbable second-half comeback in New Orleans and a trouncing at the Rose Garden no one in Portland saw coming. They ventured back to .500 thanks to a five-game winning streak and six consecutive road victories.
The eighth seed remained a long shot, but the squad could at least discuss the possibility of a playoff berth without inspiring waves of laughter. Monday night, they became a winning outfit for the first time in the 2010-2011 campaign.
Consider last week’s 106-103 defeat at the hands of the Clippers confirmation of that prognosis. A struggling outfit with Blake Griffin and other athletes that seem to jump over office buildings when they dunk was not an ideal fourth-game-in-five-nights opponent. The Phoenix Suns, a terrible matchup even when Yao Ming was healthy, triumphed by three in a similar situation.
The Suns and Clippers were rested and waiting. The Rockets had a chance to send each barnburner into overtime with last-second treys. The rushed attempts skipped off the back iron and spirited efforts joined the dejecting list of casualties.
The transactions that shipped Shane Battier to Memphis and Aaron Brooks to Phoenix yielded more long-term assets—including four draft picks, two of which are selections in the 2011 first round. Hasheem Thabeet, for those keeping score, has played less than 15 minutes since the deal that landed him here. Adelman has not even activated Demarre Carroll yet.
Battier represented the team’s glue and its best perimeter defender. Brooks was seen as the roster’s best shot creator. So, how to explain this seven-of-nine Renaissance by a squad projected to fall further after jettisoning two established rotation players?
Sometimes, the employees already on the payroll benefit the most after core-shaking trades. Thabeet and Carroll may help later. Each will need to spend countless hours in the gym refining his talents and addressing his flaws.
Dragic figured to get immediate burn because he plays point guard, a now thin position. The Slovenian has done a commendable job backing up Kyle Lowry in spurts.
Morey, though, did not acquire a trio of projects to help the Rockets’ 2011 prospects. He hopes the franchise’s rich tradition of big men—and their remarkable successes—will rub off on Thabeet. Carroll Dawson has begun individual workouts. Hakeem Olajuwon will surely assist a fellow countryman if asked.
The Suns tossed Dragic near the Gulf of Mexico for the same reason the Rockets dropped Brooks in the desert. Both guards were playing awful basketball. The combined plus/minus rating of Brooks and Dragic in the previous three weeks might make even David Kahn queasy.
Carroll is another one of those talent-packed forwards who has struggled to harness an NBA niche. Houston—like any organization with confidence in its coaching staff and developmental resources—hopes to find him the right GPS. Turn right or left? Which way to the hoop?
Budinger, Lee and Patterson needed more consistent minutes. That seems clear now.
Monday’s 123-101 demolition in Sacramento, though, should have highlighted the chief reason the Rockets remain in the eighth-seed chase. Adelman—that old guy on the bench—knows how to coach.
He emancipated Williams, and his court appearances did not suggest he should crack the crunch-time rotation. Many fans yelled tirelessly for his release and now heckle him while he watches the action on the bench. “Work on your game, T-Will.”
The protestations continue, even as the Rockets demonstrate the character and winning attitude that should make Adelman’s sideline sagacity undeniable. With Williams' serenades no longer in vogue, the Red Rowdies now want to post bail for the tallest guy on the roster. “Free Thabeet,” they shouted in Saturday’s feel-good stomp of the Indiana Pacers.
Finally, with the outcome long-since decided, he did. Thabeet’s rejection drew the loudest cheers of the evening.
Scatterbrained spectators think this way. Call it a reality, not an unnecessary dig. Yours truly, after all, watches from the stands, not the press box.
Adelman’s exclusive company dwindled Monday when he tied Dick Motta, a mentor, for 10th place on the all-time victories list. He boasts a much higher winning percentage, .652, than the two men atop the prospectus, Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson. His 935-609 record speaks to his longevity and his prowess.
He also owns the highest winning percentage of any coach in Rockets history. Yes, he beats Rudy Tomjanovich there.
Would you believe this? Tomjanovich, a beloved figure in Houston, attends numerous games as a scout—and the flighty fans want him freed, too.
“Bring back Rudy-T.”
He worked well with veteran rosters equipped to contend. His transient stay in L.A. spotlighted his flaws as a locker room manager. Would he do better with this group than Adelman? Could any sideline chief milk more from this crippled cow?
The proof came when the Rockets trampled the Kings in the house Martin says Adelman built. One look at that sad-sack, sordid franchise says it all.
Owners Joe and Gavin Maloof were granted an extension last week in their bid to uproot the cash-strapped Kings and haul them to Anaheim. They want a new building Sacramento lawmakers and residents have not been able to finance. The current venue, though not structurally damaged, is a greenback-draining vexation.
They call it Power Balance Pavilion now, instead of Arco Arena, but all the Kings seem to do there is stumble and teeter, with one foot aimed toward Secaucus and the other out the door in the So-Cal direction.
Adelman leaves an organization in better shape than he found it. He chaperoned and guided the glory days in both Sacramento and Portland. If a sneaky reporter ever found a way to inject the Maloofs with truth serum, they would admit that firing Adelman was a colossal mistake on the level of Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Ishtar.
Do you want a poo-poo platter of coaches to spin through the revolving door? Do you want DeMarcus Cousins coming to blows with teammate Donte Greene because he did not touch the ball on the final possession? Do you crave irrelevancy and lottery trips that bear poison fruit? Can you accept mortification and abasement?
That’s what you risk if you let Adelman walk without a superior replacement available. Nate McMillan and Doc Rivers will mull better offers and may stay put. Owner Leslie Alexander should forget about them if they strike his fancy. Would you trade the Boston gig for this one?
Maybe Adelman will decide to leave on his own terms. He signed up to coach a roster with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, not this, even if he derives pleasure from watching this often-overmatched unit compete and wrestle its way back into the playoff discussion.
Like former teammate Jerry Sloan, he might say he’s had enough and retreat to his home in Portland, content with his accomplishments and his legacy.
If he does want to come back, Alexander must do everything possible to make it happen.
The Kings became a derailed sideshow and a doormat for more reasons than one coach’s dismissal. A double-dip recession slammed Sacramento as hard as any U.S. city and a rotten TV deal has not allowed the Maloofs to splurge as Jerry Buss has. Some risky draft selections have also tested boundaries and patience levels.
They let money fly when Chris Webber approached free agency and propagated exorbitant payrolls when the team challenged for conference supremacy. Why did they knee-jerk and let Adelman go after another postseason berth? Alexander should learn from that costly no-no.
My fellow Rowdies should, too.
The fans chide Adelman for not playing a 7’2” project. What dishonorable drivel will they shovel on the next guy?
What happens when the “young coach” some lust for takes the job, leads a regression and proves me right? What will they yell then?
Houston supporters are as anxious and frustrated as Alexander. They yearn for the exhilaration that defined the Olajuwon era. Morey can only satisfy that fix by upgrading his talent base and acquiring a franchise star.
The Rockets' best moments since the Bill Clinton administration came with Adelman at the helm—a 22-game winning streak, a second-round appearance and a 42-40 record with Yao shelved. I cannot fathom the erasure of that progress.
Tuesday’s shootout reminded that Houston still reeks on the defensive end. Hakim Warrick, who averages eight points, exploded for a career-high 32. Marcin Gortat’s size and length proved too much to overcome in the battle of the boards.
Give the Rockets this: On the second night of a back-to-back, with Luis Scola missing his first game in a Houston uniform, they afforded themselves another chance. Maddening miscues spelled late doom. Why did no player call timeout on either of the final two possessions? Why did Brad Miller toss such a careless pass in a critical, no-turnovers-allowed situation?
The answers do not matter much in the interim. The Rockets remain a longshot playoff entrant—despite the easiest schedule of the numerous seventh-eighth seed competitors—because they need assistance from teams on similar rolls. The Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers delivered statements this week that showed they could survive difficult closing slates.
That Houston is even in the conversation is a testament to the huddle harbinger as much as Budinger, Lee or Lowry.
He teaches, he inspires—and most of all—he demands cultivation. Adelman freed Williams against the Nets. A few other rotation detainees took flight when Battier and Brooks departed.
Some fans want the cuffs to come off Thabeet next. They berate the head coach for misusing his assets and not preaching defense enough.
Monday’s lesson, then, was a powerful one.
Kings followers have been airing their hopes and wishes, too. Beyond wanting the squad to stay in Sacramento, they long for the losing and the humiliation to end. Since the Maloofs canned Adelman, their threadbare arena has become a penitentiary where the ticket-buying inmates are forced to subsidize bad basketball.
The owners once seen as passionate protagonists now come across as cruel wardens prepared to send innocent residents to solitary confinement. If the franchise exits, the fans lose everything. If it stays, they must watch a loser product with a combustible future.
The diehards in Sacramento wish they could bemoan a project bench player’s limited minutes instead of their own incarcerations.
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