The Houston Rockets did not have to turn to their celebrated math club of a front office. The analytics needed were simple arithmetic.
The Rockets lost their first game to the Denver Nuggets by 20 points and promised not to panic. As Pat Beverley pointed out, there were still 81 regular-season games to play.
Finally, after becoming the first team to ever begin a season with three-consecutive 20-point losses, the Rockets surged to their first win, rallying from a 15-point second-half deficit to knock off the previously-unbeaten Oklahoma City Thunder and record their first win of the season.
They no longer had to make an argument that they had time after so much had gone so wrong to make things right.
Harden, however, cited a different number, making a case as indisputable as when the Rockets had been arguing for patience.
“It’s basically only one game,” he said. As encouraging—and desperately needed—as it was, the losses that preceded Monday’s could not be erased by one very good comeback.
If they could say it was just one game when they lost—and then say it again and again—they had to admit it when they won.
The issues that sent them to the NBA’s most stunning, stumbling start do not disappear that quickly. They did not appear quickly, either.
“The San Antonio game (to end the preseason Oct. 23), I said, ‘We are a long, long way away from being a functioning basketball team that can go in and win games and win tough games,’” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “We are not there yet, but we’re closer. We’re a step closer. It always feels good to win, but the reality is we have a long way to go.”
While the rest of the league is completing the first week of the regular season, the Rockets look like a team a week into training camp.
They show flashes of talent and potential, but it doesn’t last. Players sit out with injuries (Terrence Jones) or to work on conditioning (Dwight Howard). The shooting is off. (Through three games, Harden had made 22.2 percent of his shot, 9.4 percent of his 3s. Ty Lawson had made 28.5 percent.)
The offense moves slowly, tentatively with little ball movement. The defense is not cohesive with inexperienced big men not ready to take on the usual NBA responsibilities in the paint. Energy and intensity have been unreliable.
In the first week of the preseason, none of that is much of a concern. But while other teams were working through the usual training camp issues, most of the Rockets’ regulars watched.
McHale often looked out at his preseason big men on the practice court to see Joshua Smith and Chris Walker going against Jeremy Tyler and Clint Capela. Howard remained in another room riding a stationary bicycle. Jones went from injury to injury. Donatas Motiejunas waited (and is still waiting) for doctors’ blessing to practice after last season’s back surgery.
“There’s no excuse for how bad we played for three games,” McHale said. “Don’t get (confused); this is not an excuse. There is no excuse for that. That’s terrible. These guys have played basketball their whole life. I told them they are professional basketball players. We’re not playing lacrosse. I thought they thought maybe we changed sports.
“But we haven’t had a lot of time together. Ty hasn’t had a lot of time. We missed a lot of practices. He didn’t play much. Getting a rhythm requires … a lot of time on the floor.”
In eight preseason games, the Rockets had seven starting lineups. In four regular-season games, the Rockets have had four different lineups. But last season, when they had their starters together only twice, Harden could carry them through any rough spots along the way.
They never had a losing streak as long as the three-game collapse to start this season when Harden could not find the “rhythm” he lost over the summer.
This was also not a sudden change. Harden sprained his ankle over the summer and did not play his way through the offseason as he prefers, and especially as he did before last year when he starred for the USA Basketball Senior National team.
He asked McHale for extra playing time in the second preseason game, put up 19 points in 20 first half minutes against the Dallas Mavericks and was rolling in the next game when he bumped knees against the Orlando Magic and went out for a week.
He never looked like last season’s MVP runner-up again—until Monday’s 37-point night against the Thunder.
"I had to get my mind right mentally," Harden said Monday after an extra shooting session in the morning and a breakthrough at night. "That's what I've got to do. Just work, no matter if I make or miss shots. If I'm putting the work in, the confidence will be there."
Harden said that confidence was never shaken and McHale laughed at the idea that it could be after three games no matter how bad they were. But even if Harden is ready to score the Rockets past their shortcomings, they still will have to address those shortcomings.
Jones, who missed 49 games last season with a nerve issue and a collapsed lung, missed time in the preseason with bruised ribs and a concussion. He is out with a laceration on his right eyelid. With Motiejunas out, McHale has stopped playing power forwards entirely, hoping a small lineup could at least scramble enough to force turnovers and run as they did against the Thunder.
“As long as we can stay on the same page defensively, getting stops, we have so many guys who can get out in transition,” Harden said. “But if we don’t get stops, we’re useless in that category. It was about making the extra effort. It was about getting stops. It was about knowing the game plan, knowing who is going to be effective and making sure we corral those players and then making stops and rebounding the basketball.”
When Howard plays, that could make the defense work again, but Howard is still working his way into shape after missing all but the first game of the preseason with a stiff back. He played just one of the 20-point losses. He could be held out of one game in the Rockets’ upcoming road back-to-back to face the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers.
“That’s basically how we have to play defense,” Howard said. “We have to be scrappy. We have to communicate. We got to make plays for each other.”
The Rockets did enough of that on Monday to get 18 steals, their most since February, 2007. Unlike the losses to the Warriors and Heat, when they collapsed in the second half, when they trailed the Thunder by 15, they battled back with desperation at least partly inspired by the sobering 0-3 start.
There was little doubt that they did need to be humbled. That might not have created the problems of the preseason, but when the Rockets struggled through October, they believed they remained in that club of championship contenders.
They did not get the work in they needed in the preseason, but they assumed the lights would come on and they would pick up where they left off as the No. 2 team in the Western Conference last season.
“We needed a wake-up call,” Howard said. “We needed to humble ourselves.”
The three blowout losses took care of that. One win did not repair the damage, but it did bring the first step in that direction, even if there remains a long way to go.
“The race is not always given to the swift,” Howard said. “It’s to those that endure to the end. That’s what we got to do. We got to keep enduring, keep fighting. All that’s going to do is produce character. By the end of the season, we’ll be a great team.”
*All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.