Houston Rockets: The last stand

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courtesy of @houstonrockets on Twitter

Game 3 of the Rockets-Warriors playoff series had both sides see the emergence of a team with some heart, determination, and hunger to win a series. Game 3 was also the first time the caliber of the talent on the roster, primarily at #1 and #2. Through a few chance alley oops from Harden to Howard, the team finally displayed team leadership and ownership of what happens out on the court, through 4 quarters of ball. The win ignited the team, and today’s pregame practice showed that energy has not left the building.

Is it too late to come back, though? Nobody can argue the impact Steph Curry has on any opponent that faces him. He averages just over 30 points per game, and has an accuracy not matched by any single member of the Rockets. His absense in the second half of game 1, game 2, and game 3 gave the Rockets the biggest opportunity they’ll have in the playoffs this year, and it was all but squandered. The first game was an embarrassment, the second game almost the same, but then the Rockets woke up in game three.

The same intensity will be out on the court today, less than an hour away from tip off. Steph Curry will be out there too, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what level he brings back after resting 2 1/2 games. This game is another must-win game for the Rockets if they have a prayer to advance, because they won’t be coming back from 3-1. Not in Oracle Arena, and not if Curry has a say. If the Rockets post a win today, that evens out the series. That also brings another game back to Houston. That is their only chance.

This game will be tough, but will be exciting to watch. I am still of the mind to state this team doesn’t deserve the championship run that their just good enough to stumble in to the playoffs record has allowed them. I still don’t believe that this team has the leadership and drive to make it. I believe they’ll put up a good fight. However, I simply don’t believe it will be enough to drive them to a win this game. I think the effort in the last game was futile, because it came way too late and at a high cost to the team.

In the event I am wrong, and Thursday’s victory was just the start of an ubelievable comeback for the books, then I’ll be speechless. It will be hard to change my opinion about this year’s team, but if that unbelievable comeback happens, it may start to turn. That depends strongly on the Rockets playing hard for at least 3 to 4 more games. In all honestly, I haven’t seen the Rockets play hard for a streak since 2014. Even their best year in recent history, 2015, saw streaks of phoning it in on the court. Especially in the playoffs.

In the event I am right, and I believe fully that I am right. The Rockets will give their deserving fans a final game worthy of shelling out their hard earned bucks in a heartbreaking loss. Today’s game will be worth the view, and will be a rare glimpse of what this team can really do, so do watch. Do see what this team was capable of all year. And then you can start to realize why this team has to be rebuilt when it’s over. But for now, just enjoy the show.

 

Houston Rockets: #Celebrategate and why it matters

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I’m sure every Rockets fan can remember exactly where they were when Damian Lillard stole the world away from us. I was at my favorite sports bar and just lost my voice with the excitement of what was surely a game 6 win for the Rockets and an opportunity to bring the series back home for a game 7 win. What was a compelling game to watch with two teams that wouldn’t back down came down to the final 9/10ths of a second, but we were already celebrating game 7. The ball was then thrown back into play, and we all got to witness this:

Game over. Lillard’s buzz beater 3 pointer sealed the fate of the Rockets that season, and fans around the city went from immense joy to silent depression. In the moments after, you could walk out on any city street and hear a pin drop.  Minutes earlier, people already started celebrating. That buzzer beater will always remind each and every one of us that anything can happen within the time span of the clock. Hold your breath, get excited, but save the celebration for 0.0.

Last night’s game was played in a similar fashion and mentality. The Rockets came out with explosive energy and played their hearts out. The Warriors, albeit without their star Steph Curry, were knocked on their feet. They did stage a gradual comeback throughout the game, and in the 4th quarter, it was neck-and-neck. This was the kind of playoff game you want to be at. This is the kind of ball we all wanted to see all season long, and it finally appeared in a must-win situation to keep the Rockets alive. For as much disappointment this team has given us all this season, this game began to make up for it.

Most of us, though, still have that memory. When Harden sank his jumper in the last few seconds, the clock stopped at a near-ominous point: 2.1 seconds remaining in the game. The Lillard shot took .9 seconds. This was far from over. The bench, including Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, and Clint Capella, stood anxiously watching Harden’s moves. When he sank it, Capella was overjoyed, Josh Smith looked unfazed, and Dwight Howard seemed to quietly praise God. However, the ever-scrutinous Rockets fan base, as well as NBA critics around the world, began to wonder if the team didn’t get as excited as they should have.

The scrutiny itself seems silly, especially when we can all look back at the 2014 playoffs. However, it’s not just the overly critical Rockets fans reacting to this. It’s the NBA at large, who has been privy to the off-court drama and on-court play this team has dished out this season. A team on the brink of the championship in 2015 comes out in disarray. Multiple players only meetings, one resulting in the incredible and unwarranted firing of their head coach, as well as the pretty embarrassing trade-shopping for Howard clearly demonstrated a team in trouble.

In fact, this season is the direct antithesis of what a championship basketball team is and how one works. Game after game we had players showing up for attendance and checking out halfway through the game. At times, they weren’t even there. Sloppy plays, increasingly desperate 3 point attempts, a hastily appointed interim coach that had no authority over the team, and a group of players that hardly resembled a team, much less the few games away from a Championship game team that left the court in 2015. And let’s not forget defense, even though the team has.

Today’s story would be different, much different, had the Rockets brushed off the tulmutuous season and hit the playoffs in a mad sprint. They didn’t. The first game was as much of a mess as the entire season had been. It’s a game that had everyone chanting “sweep” from every couch cushion, barstool, and stadium seat around the country, watching this series. If game 3 had been a testimony of the effort and heart these players put into the whole series, nobody would be watching the bench instead of the court in the final seconds of the game.

That didn’t happen, though. We were treated to two abysmal games in which the Rockets had each and every chance to make this a 3-0 series, especially considering Curry’s exit in game 1, but continue their haphazard season in the same way they carried themselves throughout. Had this team hit the court in game 1 or 2, the Rockets would have a 3-0 record, and an opportunity to advance and actually sweep the Warriors – the record-breaking, unstoppable Warriors – to advance to the next round. This playoff series was theirs to prove what they had, and we heard it loud and clear.

A team with the talent, to step up when they really have to – and last night, they really had to – but not a championship team that has what it takes to step up every game.

People are confused and irritated about the scrutiny on the sidelines with 2 seconds left in the game? They shouldn’t be. By all appearances, this now-infamous vine wasn’t even posted by a Rockets fan or affiliate. So it’s not Rocket fan scrutiny happening here. We can turn our heads when Barkley slams the team, but when the fandom of the NBA is speaking up, that is hard to ignore. Sure, Rockets fans and critics alike jumped on the scrutiny, but it came from a place existing outside of the Rocketsphere. Those queries and critiques are the ones we should listen to.

Regardless of how far the team gets in the playoffs (which I predict will be 3 more games, tops), the problems within this organization are a little to loud to ignore. When it comes down to whether or one half of your feuding players are celebrating the counterpart’s success on the court, instead of what’s happening on the court, the organization can’t brush it off. The scrutiny is there for a reason. So let’s stop defending the players and criticizing the fans for their eye toward detail that usually shouldn’t matter. It matters this year, and we all know why.

 

 

Houston Rockets: Playoff time

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I just want to remind you of what a Championship team looks like.

A 2-time championship team.

A team who didn’t have nasty feuds in the locker room that spilled out onto headlines and the basketball court.

A team who didn’t have star players chasing cameras and celebrities.

A team who stood behind their coaching staff through thick and thin.

A team who didn’t try to trade off their own teammates throughout any season, win or loss.

I want that to be made clear, before anyone goes into statistical comparisons between this team and today’s team.

There is no comparison.

The 2016 Rockets have fallen apart, and it’s a miracle they’ve stumbled into a playoff spot with an even record. After a devastating and, frankly, embarrassing loss against the Suns – one game, but also one game that succintly sums up the entire season – they managed to win out and claim their position. And it honestly couldn’t be more fitting than to face the top seed, 9 loss, multiple record-breaking returning Champions: the Golden State Warriors. A high-energy team with the highest points per game, playing a team that stumbled in backwards into the last spot of the playoffs, who apparently believes that defense is optional.

Granted, the Rockets rank #4 this year in points per game, but have a .1 point differential vs their opponents. When you’re ranked in the top 4 in scoring and have that differential, you’re missing a huge element of the game. Dwight Howard hasn’t done it for us. That’s one reason he’s on his way out. The Rockets will need more than 1 hole to fill next week when the offseason is over for them. Because, let’s face it, there is no way that the Rockets get out and consistently outscore Golden State in 4 of 7 games, much less 4-4, 5, or 6. A team can’t stumble in with a losing record, when they can’t consistently play 4 Qs of ball and expect anything but embarrassment.

Here is to hoping this is a short stint, and as painless as possible. Currently, with the Rockets down 33-60 in the half of game 1, it may be short, but not so much on the painless. With 2 consecutive quarters scoring less than 20, Rockets currently are not even on pace to finish with 80 points. 80 points, in  a playoff game against the highest scoring team in the league this year. Here’s to hoping this team gets dismantled 4 games from now, from top to bottom, and gets properly rebuilt. Start with the GM. Put interim HC Bickerstaff out of his misery. And put some thought into whether or not this team can find someone to compliment James Harden on the court. If not, then maybe it’s time to move on there, too.

This is not a championship team. This roster doesn’t even compare to the 1994/1995 team that brought a title to Houston. Frankly, it’s insulting to continue to force the comparison. That team deserves better than to be held up to the current team. This isn’t an attack on any individual players or skills, per se, but the overall disaster that Daryl Morey helped build. This is his face, and it has failed miseraby .Be gone, sir. The Rockets would have been better off staying out of the big boy’s games this year, but perhaps they need this national embarrassment and veritable ass-whooping on national television to really let it sink in. The fans want more. The fans deserve more. The team deserves more. So, get it done in the offseason.

 

 

Houston Rockets: Season wrap-up

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This is the first and maybe last column for the 2015-16 Houston Rockets season. With three games left and 1 game out of the playoffs, I am officially declaring the season over. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say Thursday night’s embarrassing loss to the 20-28 (now 21-38) young, inexperienced Phoenix Suns should disqualify the team from playoff contention out of principle.

There is not one better game to represent this disaster of a season for the Houston Rockets – a team that made it all the way to the conference championship in 2015 with the same core players.

Before the Rockets took the court of their first game of the season, I, along with most, felt that this was the year for the Rockets to make a real run. They weren’t a complete team, with the same defensive woes that hadn’t been managed since 2013, but the key was outscoring opponents, every single game. It worked in 2014. It worked in 2015. It was set to work in 2016.

When the Rockets lost their first game to Denver Nuggets, I shrugged my shoulders, and jokingly made a promise not to watch the games until they improved over the Texans winning percentage. At that point, it would have taken a single win, as the Texans were 2-5. A few losses later, and I thought perhaps that I’d jinxed the team. Then, they started clocking some wins.

And then they sunk again – 4 in a row, and then a team meeting. Eleven games into the rocky start of a season, and a players only meeting was called. The result of that? Coach Kevin McHale was fired. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff  took over, and the Rockets took the court against the Portland Trailblazers and won a thriller going into overtime. And then the losses continued.

The whole season has been a see-saw of ups and downs. There was no rhyme or reason – some were won, and some were lost. Upsets occurred, and sure wins were lost. The only constant was the guys on the court could not get it and keep it together. There was no clear leadership, and no clear direction. We’re not talking about a team of rookies, either. We’re talking about a core group who has been to 2-3 playoffs together as Rockets.

An uncomfortable amount of those losses were leads that fell apart in the 4th quarter. Literally half of the Rocket’s losses occurred with at least 1 quarter with less than 20 points. I’m not talking about 19, 18 – I mean 11 points, 12 points, 13, 14. The low point was 11, unless you count 8 in an overtime loss. I won’t, because 5 quarters of basketball is grueling. However, half of this year’s losses happened because the Rockets crapped the bed for a quarter (or even 2).

The turning point (or potential turning point) in the season came precisely 2 months ago, with an away game at Golden State, in Oracle Arena, where the Warriors had a 41-game home winning streak. In the 1st quarter, it seemed clear the Warriors were going to add another game, with 42 points to put them up 15. The Rockets charged back in the next 2 quarters, and the team entered the 4th tied at 93. And then they fizzled. Another sub-20 quarter, and another loss by double digits.

In a game that could have changed the course, they just couldn’t. Couldn’t try hard enough, couldn’t get it together, couldn’t care – it doesn’t matter. They just couldn’t, which pretty much defines this entire season.  A team who was on the brink of playing for the Championship just 1 year prior couldn’t do it anymore. So what is the real problem? There are some specific issues with the team. Ego, leadership, and defense are the biggest problem areas. Dropping the ball on trades, hasty firings – the list goes on.

The real issue is this team is broken, and there’s no fixing it.

Leadership and ego are the main issues. Harden/Howard is not going to be fixed, and it’s hurt this season more than any other. Harden’s self-centered, and isn’t much of a team player. The coaching leans on that, though, because he can also put up 30-40 points on a regular basis. One superstar isn’t going to win it, however. Just ask Lebron. Howard can’t handle the designation of 2nd in command, but the problem there is he doesn’t want to put the work in to be top dog.

When these 2 are supposed to be the leaders, and they try harder to get the other removed, rather than work together to win games, the result is exactly what we’ve seen all year long from this team. A group that throws away leads and can’t finish in games that matter.

Defense – in which former DPOY Howard can step up in a leadership role – has fallen flat. It’s not-existant. Out of the 41 losses the Rockets have this year (20 with low-scoring quarters in the teens and below), the Rockets have lost 24 games in which they’ve scored in the triple digits, and many of those losses have been by 10 or more points. Again, the Rockets have primarily ignored strengthening their defense since 2013, relying heavily on simply outscoring opponents. That’s not good enough for a championship.

The Rockets are 3 games shy of closing out the season, and a single game out of the top 8 in the West. Out of those 3 games, 2 are opponents that the Rockets have swept thus far in the season, but that doesn’t even matter anymore. I predict a 1-2 win/loss record to finish it out, because then the Rockets could be 2 teams shy of losing to every single team in the NBA.  I wouldn’t even want to see what kind of show they put on in the playoffs with teams who actually have worked to get there. The Suns loss 2 days ago was bad enough.

The only winner coming out of this era is Kevin McHale. He’s had 4 winning seasons and 3 playoff appearances in his 4 years with the Rockets, and was unceremoniously scapegoated  and relieved of duty before this disaster could taint his record. That’s why, with 3 games left in the season, I’m wrapping it up. This is the only column they deserve for the year, and with any luck this team will be detonated and rebuilt in the upcoming off season. Just scrap it all, because there are too many problems to fix – and start with Daryl Morey.