In many sports, the growing of facial hair is symbolic of success. It's a frequent routine of playoff teams in baseball, for example, including the Astros' franchise-best seasons of 2004 and 2005.
But Shane Battier of the struggling Rockets (24-20) has a different idea. On a dare, he's growing a mustache for one of the few times in his life. The concept? To try and make it so hideous that his Rockets' teammates become inspired to improve their play and remove it.
"Until we start playing better, I'm going to let the 'stache go free," said Battier, sporting a three-day old, black-haired mustache following the Rockets' 102-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.
"My wife said, 'You need to at least trim it.' I said, 'No, it's gotta be natural. Just let the power of the 'stache emanate.' My good buddy Mike Dunleavy [former Duke teammate] and I, we have a running competition. He got me last year and grew a pretty thick one, so I'm trying to match him."
The dare also came, among others, from rookie swingman Chase Budinger. Before last Friday's game at division rival San Antonio, the typically clean-cut Battier had a Trevor Ariza-esque shooting percentage of below 32 percent in January. He responded by taking Budinger up on a challenge, and shot 6-for-6 -- including 2-of-2 from long range -- as the Rockets' offense broke out of its funk with a 116-109 win against the Spurs.
For one day, Battier's move seemed prophetic. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they've since opened up a six-game homestand with a pair of uninspired losses to the Bulls and Hawks. Suddenly, the team that entered 2010 at 20-13 and competing for a top-four seed in the Western Conference playoffs has since lost seven of 11 and fallen into a tie for ninth, currently on the outside of the playoff bubble.
For about 42 minutes on Monday, things looked up for Rockets. Battier's group largely held steady with the high-powered Hawks, who at 29-14 own the third-best record in the NBA's East. But for six awful minutes late in the second period, the Rockets were outscored 21-3 -- turning a one-time lead of seven into an 11-point deficit at the break.
"I thought we hung our heads a couple times when they got on us and we can't do that," head coach Rick Adelman said. "As tough as it is, you have to continue to fight through."
They never drew closer than six points for the game's duration. A pair of mini-runs in the fourth period were silenced by three-point daggers from Adelman's former point guard Mike Bibby, and the Rockets failed to show the aforementioned fight.
"This is pretty much the lowest point yet for us," said forward Carl Landry, who led Houston with 16 points and added five rebounds.
Many of the Rockets' problems of late have come on the defensive end. That's particularly been the case since stalwart post defender Chuck Hayes became limited in recent days due to tendonitis in his right knee, leaving Battier as one of the only above-average defenders.
But on Monday, the team's issues largely switched sides.
The Rockets held the ultra-athletic Hawks below their season average in scoring, especially in the second half when Atlanta's 22-point third quarter gave the Rockets' ample opportunity to claw back into the game. Unfortunately for them, an undermanned and undersized roster without Yao Ming usually has to connect from outside to have a chance. A 5-for-21 night from beyond the arc eliminated any hope.
"Atlanta's a very, very good team, a true contender in the East," said Battier, whose 'stache power resulted in a 10-point night on 3-of-7 shooting, including only 1-of-4 from deep. "The margin of error is slim -- if we don't shoot well, we won't beat those teams.
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"The pressure just mounts because we want to play well and feel good about ourselves so bad that sometimes you try too hard. We just have to go back to the basics."
Apparently, that even includes tossing out the razor.
"I'm at least keeping [the mustache] the rest of the homestand," Battier said. "Just trying to bring some levity into the locker room. It's a long year, so you have to find humor somewhere.
"Until I feel we've improved as a basketball team, it stays."