Houston Rockets' Key to Avoiding March Madness: Buy a Calendar

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMarch 17, 2011

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 10:  Chase Budinger #10 of the Houston Rockets celebrates his three point shot in the first half against the Boston Celtics on January 10, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jared Dudley caught Zabian Dowdell's perfect pass and—all alone behind the left-wing line—fired the three-point bullet that might have killed the Rockets' faint postseason hopes.

The Phoenix forward's apocalyptic bomb skipped off the back rim, a rare lucky break, and Houston nipped Phoenix 95-93.

Wednesday's 94-78 win over the Charlotte Bobcats did not require any last-second serendipity or final-minute free throws from Chuck Hayes.

The Rockets spared a sparse crowd the drama of a near-collapse and throttled Charlotte in the fourth quarter, putting the outcome on ice. Owner Michael Jordan, sitting behind the visitor's bench at Toyota Center, should consider changing his team's name. The opposite of fierce in the clutch, they play more like House Cats.

Meow. Meow. Meow. Meh.

Houston's victory was its ninth in 12th tries. That impressive feat, coupled with the reality of the Western Conference playoff picture—the Grizzlies still boast a 2.5-game lead in the eighth-seed chase—underscores the Rockets' problem.

They cannot wait until March to begin approximating a squad that deserves a playoff berth. The San Antonio Spurs, the vanquishers in an agonizing 115-107 Saturday defeat, offer a best-case example of what can happen for teams heeding that lesson.

Manu Ginobili approached Gregg Popovich last summer, imploring the coach to emphasize winning in November and December more than usual. Pop's response? He laughed and told the Argentine to make more shots and play better defense in those months. So Ginobili did, and look at the Spurs now.

San Antonio owns a more-than-six-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers in the race for the Western Conference's top seed. Even a 110-80 blasting in Miami could not derail the Spurs bid for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

If the Rockets handle the Boston Celtics on Friday and sweep the season series, the Spurs grab even more breathing room in that quest.

Fans wanted to lambaste lead official Bennett Salvatore after Saturday's loss. They flooded sports talk stations the next two days and did more whining than Stan Van Gundy at an ESPN Christmas party hosted by Michael Wilbon.

Stop blaming the refs. The distraught Houston supporters—who believe errant whistles, not bad defense, cost the Rockets against the Spurs—should scapegoat someone or something else.

How about the players, the ones with calendars that suggest the season begins after the All-Star break? Did they buy them at a Dollar Store in liquidation mode?

The Rockets of the previous month—after the trades that shipped Shane Battier to Memphis and Aaron Brooks to Phoenix—belong in a late-April dance. They exemplify passion and resolution. They find ways to stay in ball games, even if dead legs or miserable shooting suggest a beatdown is coming.

Wednesday's game was uglier to watch than a Rosie O'Donnell bikini photo shoot and muckier than pool water after swimming lessons with Jabba the Hutt. The Rockets could not locate a barn or the ocean, but they romped anyway, because the Bobcats emit a foul odor on the road that rivals rancid lunch meat.

Stephen Jackson, a woeful 2-of-14 from the field, was the evening's certifiable hoops skunk. Most of what he heaved toward the basket had a better chance of finding a Toyota Center restroom than the net.

Two weeks ago, Houston smacked around Indiana in a long-distance shooting clinic.

Our mothers taught us to take out the trash, right? How, then, can the Rockets obey that familiar parental command and still sit farther from a postseason berth than the two garbage outfits they whooped?

The NBA, it seems, does not operate a sanitation department. The next person that proclaims life is fair will endure a root canal and a sewage backup in the same day.

A quote from an unknown source sums up the Rockets predicament:

"Expecting the world to be fair to you because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian." That person knows his or her stuff.

Bill Gates was more frank: "Life is not fair, get used to it."

Those of you who have called Mr. Gates a "jackass" because Microsoft's Windows Vista crashed your laptop can relate.

Rockets fans better get used to it. An Eastern Conference squad 10 games below .500 can still earn the right to get whacked by a No. 1 seed, yet a 35-34 team out West needs a miracle to avoid watching the playoffs at home.

Does anyone still want to argue that the league's balance of power has shifted? When every East playoff entrant boasts a winning record, get back to me. Rick Adelman has been enslaved and tormented by this palpable situation.

Houston's reward for nine victories in 12 tries is a cold-blooded mandate to keep up the frantic pace. Catching Memphis remains possible. If the Grizzlies lose to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden tonight and the Rockets topple the Celtics, a two-game lead with 12 games remaining would not be insurmountable.

The Grizzlies must traverse a tougher schedule with fewer home games. However, doable in this case amounts to unlikely.

Rockets Broadcast Director Joel Blank suggested in a radio interview that everything was "coming up blackjack against them." Blank—and the others who blame misfortune alone—should weigh some facts.

Memphis is 6-5 in its last 11 contests. Rudy Gay, the team's best player, was sidelined for weeks with a shoulder injury. I doubt anyone on the Grizzlies would equate that to a winning hand.

How much more assistance can any Houston fan expect? Answer: zilch. The Rockets dug themselves such a hole that they don't need the Grizzlies to lose. They need Memphis to get coach Lionel Hollins fired.

I, instead, blame the calendar—or the lack of one—inside the heads of the players who have fought so valiantly since the trade deadline. Would you still want to overhaul the playoff bracket if the Rockets were cemented as a playoff-bound unit?

There is a simpler way to reach the postseason that does not involve endless scoreboard watching and the threat of panic attacks.

Don't start the season 0-5.

Don't pair a victory in Boston with a home loss to the paltry Minnesota Timberwolves.

Don't blow 16-point leads at home against the New Orleans Hornets and Utah Jazz.

Don't give away a crucial contest in Memphis that would have yielded a series sweep.

Don't miss the free throw that would have sewn up a momentous triumph in Chicago. Brad Miller, I'm glaring in your direction. Were you not out there as the team's designated best foul shooter?

Never allow Charlotte and Milwaukee, two offensively challenged bricklayers, to shoot 50 percent. Those road victories would have been nice to have.

Don't blow a 13-point fourth-quarter lead against the Blazers, again, at home.

Don't waste the first opportunity for a plus-.500 record by sleepwalking versus those same Blazers Jan. 2.

Don't allow Kevin Durant to taste his first ever-victory at Toyota Center when you need a W more.

Don't allow the caustic Washington Wizards to finish the final minutes of a tied affair with a 10-0 run.

Stop the rope-a-dope strategy against the Dallas Mavericks. Falling behind by 20 and then mounting a comeback does not work. Try something else when the Mavs make a return visit on Apr. 11.

Championship-caliber teams can let a few leads fritter away. Rallies and collapses happen every week in the NBA. The Rockets allowed way too many of those basketball no-nos.

They created this quagmire—not the refs or lady luck's evil twin.

GM Daryl Morey has not assembled the kind of roster that will ever challenge the Spurs' gaudy mark. He knows that, and he will work this summer to acquire a franchise anchor. Is it that absurd, though, to imagine these Rockets with six more Ws?

If just six of the aforementioned gut-wrenching defeats had gone in the other column, three-point losses to the Clippers and Suns on the second nights of back-to-back sets would not seem so devastating.

The Rockets should have mustered the same urgency throughout November that they have shown in March. Six more wins would change a lot. It would make the recent, understandable slip-ups permissible.

San Antonio is superior. The rested Clippers' size and athleticism gave them an undeniable edge against a whipped opponent. Ditto for the Suns, who waited three days for the Rockets to arrive. It figures that Boston will want to continue its winning streak at Toyota Center and atone for one of its worst defensive performances of the season.

Losing close contests to premium foes with 5-star talent? Acceptable. Surrendering 110-plus points to the Timberwolves in a humbling home loss? Unacceptable.

Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger have been revelations. This Patrick Patterson kid can play. Chuck Hayes continues to outwork forwards and centers that tower above him. He finished Wednesday with an astonishing line: nine points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block.

Yet, the Bobcats left the match with the better shot to make the field of 16.

No one can deny the Rockets' poor windfall. They are as fortuitous as a sun-burned man with a bad back forced to lug a grand piano across the Sahara Desert. Not everything, though, is far from Houston's control.

A calendar costs a few bucks. The intelligence required to understand it comes free of charge.

What happens in November affects a team's March output.

The fix seems simple enough: avoid waiting until the stretch run to ratchet up the intensity to a postseason level. How many more rounds can Houston dodge before its desperate playoff dream ends, and a foe, ready with massive firepower, goes for the ultimate kill?

The Rockets, still fighting on St. Patrick's Day, hope to channel the Bee Gees. Staying alive beats climbing into a collective body bag. Dudley could not shoot the Rockets in the heart in a Monday nail-biter. Ray Allen, the NBA's new three-point king, will come Friday armed with bigger bullets.


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