Shoulders slumped, feet shuffling and eyes downcast, a defeated Houston Rockets team retreated to its bench after the third quarter of a 111-95 loss to the Boston Celtics.
The remaining 12 minutes didn't matter. Down 19 (the deficit later grew to as much as 29) at the end of the third after being tied at halftime, the Rockets were finished. The most concerning aspect of their demise Monday was its familiarity.
Houston dropped its fourth straight game because it played indifferent defense and suffered from bone-dry scoring droughts. And all of it stemmed from a curious combination of poor effort and the absence of urgency. You know, the things head coach Kevin McHale's been complaining about for a week.
There were lots of ways to describe how Houston gave in, but the gist was generally the same.
The unanimity from observers really drives the point home:
Aside from some promising minutes during the second quarter (when they went with a zone look), the Rockets simply refused to defend. Whether it was getting beaten backdoor on basic cuts, failing to help the helper on drives or simply losing track of shooters on the perimeter, Houston showed no interest in stopping the Celtics.
On many occasions, the Rockets just didn't run back on D.
Paired with careless offense, Houston's defensive malaise made it all but inevitable that Boston's transition game would get loose. The Rockets gave up a season-worst 39 points off turnovers.
It's a little misleading to lean on the final numbers, as Houston was through competing long before the buzzer. This game was more about attitude; the Rockets had every reason to give maximum effort after three ugly losses in a row. They were at home, they'd been called out by their coach and they needed to send a message.
But there they were after the third quarter, moping to the bench, finished. Contrast that with the Celtics reserves during the 28-8 run that iced the game in the third period and you've got all you need to know about this game and these teams' respective mental states:
Oh, and Boston had played Sunday, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder by 15. If any team had an excuse to pack it in, it was the Celtics, on the second end of a back-to-back. Instead, they piled on.
So, what do the Rockets do about this?
It certainly seems like the problem is personnel-related. Ty Lawson and James Harden starting together gives opposing guards an invitation to go wild. So far, the offense hasn't benefited from playing the two of them at the same time, so perhaps sending Lawson to the pine as a second-unit leader would have the added effect of taking one poor defender out of the starting lineup.
That route presupposes Patrick Beverley will get healthy enough to start sometime soon.
It feels too early to suggest something as drastic as a trade, especially since Houston was a conference finalist just six months ago and should benefit from the eventual return of Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas. But Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has always been willing to deal, and the roster is loaded with movable pieces on affordable contracts. We shouldn't rule anything out.
There's no scenario in which Harden will be benched, even if sitting the team's best player and tone-setter in the effort department (in all the worst ways) would send a powerful message. The risk of alienating a guy who already looks halfway checked out is too great.
Maybe it's time for some tough talk. That seems to be Lawson's plan, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN:
Of course, we know how McHale feels about talk. Here's what he told reporters after losing to the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday:
We've had a lot of heart-to-hearts. As a matter of fact, we talk too much. Talking doesn't win basketball games. I've never seen talking win anything unless you are talking on defense about what coverages you are in, how you're going to help the guy, where the help is. The rest of the stuff doesn't work. If you're talking, you're not playing.
The scariest thing about this is that McHale's complaints have been as spot-on as they've been ineffectual. He's right that his team isn't playing hard, smart or well. But what if the poor play is a product of the team tuning out its coach?
The Rockets are 4-7 and have allowed the league's second-most points per possession, according to NBA.com. How they turn this around is anyone's guess. If there were an easy solution, a team with as much past success as Houston would have found it by now.
Maybe a fourth consecutive defeat will spur the change McHale wants. But maybe not. Maybe something was fractured in Houston and maybe the Celtics officially broke it. That's what Celtics point guard Marcus Smart believes (h/t MassLive.com's Jay King):
Honor in Defeat
The Philadelphia 76ers aren't a good team for, well, a ton of reasons—intentional losing and a lack of NBA-level talent being two of the more conspicuous situations. But at least they try.
That was the story in Philly's 92-86 loss to the surging Dallas Mavericks.
The 76ers coughed up the ball eight times in the first quarter as spacing issues and incomprehensibly bad passing ended possession after possession before a shot attempt. It got pretty bad, as even positive plays resulted in unforced errors:
The turnover total reached 27, which didn't please head coach Brett Brown, per Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times:
But the Sixers didn't walk off. They fought back and took a two-point lead with five minutes remaining after trailing by 13 at the end of the first period. They fell short, but valiantly so. And as long as this team can somehow keep mustering the will to fight, everyone saying the lengthy rebuild is poisoning the franchise's culture will be wrong.
Who Says the Central Is Boring?
Maybe it's the cold. Maybe it's the legacy of strong defense. Whatever the history says, we should probably dispense with the idea that the Central division is where exciting hoops go to die.
That's because we get to see Jimmy Butler and Paul George square off for the next half-decade or so.
George outplayed Butler in the Chicago Bulls' 96-95 win over the Indiana Pacers, staying red-hot with 26 points, seven boards and five assists in 39 minutes. But it was the Bulls' do-it-all wing who snuffed out George's attempt at the end of the fourth quarter to preserve Chicago's win.
How about we petition the NBA to feature eight or 10 Bulls-Pacers games every year? Or maybe we can just get Butler and George to agree to a series of one-on-one contests.
Derrick Rose sprained his left ankle in this one but isn't too concerned, per Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:
Discussing Rose's health is boring, so we're leaving it at that.
Maybe the Memphis Grizzlies just needed some new duds to get back to their old winning ways. Now 6-6 after a 122-114 win over Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies have notched three straight wins.
Sporting throwback Memphis Sounds jerseys, the Grizzlies offense looked as up to date as it had all year in converting a season-best 12 of 17 shots from long range. Newcomer Mario Chalmers pumped in 29 points, and both he and Mike Conley hit four threes on the night.
Westbrook went off for 40 points, 14 assists and four rebounds on an absurd 13-of-19 effort from the floor, but as was the case with his takeover efforts last season, OKC couldn't get him enough help to win.
This is big for Memphis, even if Kevin Durant's absence was a major factor. For a while there, it appeared the Grizzlies were finished as a serious threat in the West, done in by age and a refusal to get with the offensive times. But their three-point attempts have been up lately, and you can't ignore the 43-point fourth quarter they hung on the Thunder.
Memphis mattering again? Sounds good.
The Claw (and the Spurs) Are Coming for You
Kawhi Leonard's defense has been a powerful highlight-generator so far this year, but he reminded us (and Mason Plumlee) that his massive mitts can do some things on offense as well.
Look out, Mason.
Led by Leonard's 19 points and nine rebounds, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Portland Trail Blazers 93-80 on Monday. San Antonio is cruising, having won eight of its last nine games. Despite LaMarcus Aldridge continuing to search for his niche, despite Tony Parker looking speedy one day and stuck in mud the next and despite Danny Green's ice-cold shooting (so far), the Spurs are where they need to be.
Also, this needs to be in a museum. I don't care if he missed.
I. Don't. Care.
Look out, West, San Antonio is dominating. And it hasn't even hit its stride yet.
So, Are We Buying the Suns Yet?
After the Phoenix Suns smacked the Los Angeles Lakers 120-101, ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton laid out the basic cases for and against believing in Jeff Hornacek's crew:
The numbers are nice, but how much did we really learn about Phoenix from a win over a team that started two rookies and Metta World Peace? And how telling are wins over the Trail Blazers (two), Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets?
Let's just say the jury's still out on the Suns, who'll get a real test as seven of their next eight games come against teams that made the playoffs last year—including both the Spurs and the Warriors.
For now, all we can do is marvel at Brandon Knight's gaudy 30-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound triple-double performance. That stat line, unlike the Suns' credentials so far, is rock-solid.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Nov. 16.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.