The Fastbreak Houston Rockets Have Run Into a Wall

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst INovember 30, 2009

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 20:  Aaron Brooks #0 of the Houston Rockets against Josth Smith #5 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 20, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Before Friday's tilt with the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets had not lost two games in a row.

In the first three quarters of Sunday's 100-91 win over Oklahoma City, the Thunder threatened to extend the streak to three.

The Rockets, for their part, seemed to ask for a finishing punch, as if such a blow would end the misery of an embarrassing week.

First, the Dallas Mavericks destroyed the Rockets 130-99, using everything from hot shooting from behind the arc, to Dirk Nowitzki's untouchable fade-away jumper, and Jason Kidd post-ups, to sharpen the attack.

Jason Terry jump started the merciless blitzkrieg Wednesday night with demoralizing shot after demoralizing shot.

The Spurs strolled into town with a three game winning streak and a mission. In the third quarter of that slug-fest, the Rockets clanged 17 consecutive shots; shooting 20 fewer free throws might have hurt as well.

San Antonio escaped Houston with a 92-84 victory and the resilient Rockets seemed to have changed.

Except they didn't and never have.

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I disagree with Houston Chronicle columnist Jerome Solomon that it's too early to define the squad.

The Rockets should know by now who they are and what they must do to win.

They must hope to keep the points in the paint, rebound, and win the turnover battle to stay competitive.

Sunday, an extra-shorthanded, red-clad unit, did just that.

The Thunder grabbed 11 less rebounds, coughed up the rock four more times, and lost the war in the paint by 10.

When Carl Landry nets 21 points and 10 rebounds, David Anderson contributes 12 points, and Aaron Brooks goes for 21 points with five steals, the Rockets have a chance to beat any team at any level.

Unfortunately, such blistering performances cannot always happen, and playing hard has little to do with it.

Rick Adelman makes sure the Rockets always give a complete effort. Even when they are getting their butts kicked back to the stone age, they are still trying.

Many observers wanted to blame a lack of intensity for the home losses to the Mavericks and Spurs, but both squads boasted far superior and more experienced talent and hotter circumstantial fuel.

On Tuesday night, the Mavericks were beaten by a Golden State Warriors squad that only dressed six players and was without pneumonia-stricken head coach Don Nelson.

When Houston opened an 11-2 lead, did anyone not expect Rick Carlisle's bunch to respond?

The Spurs headed to Houston with zero road victories in four tries. A defeat would have marked the first time in Tim Duncan's career that the Spurs finished November without a win away from home.

Both the Mavericks and the Spurs have their eyes on the Western Conference title and an NBA championship. The banged-up Rockets just hope to be someone's first-round snack.

The Rockets won't always have more motivation than the opponent, but they will play hard. Some teams don't.

To suggest the Rockets gave up last week is to misunderstand the gravity of the situation.

Yao Ming's absence in the middle necessitates a run-first, run-always approach. The players have said, though, that they want to regain the stingy defensive form Jeff Van Gundy once installed.

The lesson from this week might be the impossible nature of that goal. The Thunder shot 48 percent in a loss, while the Mavericks drilled 65 percent of their shots at Toyota Center.

Running teams rarely play consistent defense, and the Rockets won't be any different.

They will try, with Chuck Hayes, Trevor Ariza, and Shane Battier, and they can succeed on some nights.

To get stops, teams must often slow down the pace, and they need an inside presence to do it. That might be what the Rockets miss most about Yao.

Hall of Fame guard Clyde Drexler, with whom I conversed on Sunday afternoon, agreed.

"The more you run, the more points you give up," he said. "Running teams need a shot blocker."

A quick scan of the roster reveals the 6'6" Hayes as the the primary defensive center. Uh-oh.

The Rockets have fallen at home to two squads with Springfield-bound point guards who make a living on the break.

Kidd led the Nets to consecutive NBA Finals with his devil-may-care passes in the open court, while Steve Nash helped lead Mike D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less Suns' offense.

The Rockets must run to get easy buckets, but opponents with more talent, who also run, will annihilate them most of the time.

Defense and this up tempo style of play, do not go hand in hand.

With continued effort, the team could still finish in the top 10 or 15 in field goal percentage defense, a laudable mark given the personnel.

They are doomed, however, to allow more points per contest this season than they have this entire decade.

Get used to nights where the other guys topple the century mark.

One woolly week does not change my preseason prediction. At 9-8, the team can still win more than 30 games and less than 50.

A victory total in that range should allow the Rockets to compete for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.

The Rockets don't have it in them to be consistent every game. There will be nights when they cannot overcome their flaws.

There will be evenings like Sunday, when a double-digit deficit means little. Houston, after all, had won 11 straight against Oklahoma City/Seattle.

This is how life on the run works.

The fastbreak Rockets have hit a wall and unlike the one in Berlin, this one's not coming down anytime soon.

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