It started in New York. Facing an awful Knicks team, the Rockets got down early, made a run to come back, but fell short late. It was the type of game you could argue the team looked past with a showdown Thursday night at home versus the team just ahead of them in the standings, the Clippers. Then they played the game and were smacked around 120-105. It was never really that close.
The Clippers, an outstanding defensive team, put the clamps on Houston's offense, but the Rockets didn't help themselves by shooting 7-42 from the three point line, only the second time this season they failed to reach 10 made threes in a game. At one point, they missed 17 in a row.
Eric Gordon left the game Thursday night with knee soreness, a recurring theme for him much of the season. The rest of his teammates didn't have a good excuse.
Plenty will be made by the national media that this a referendum on the Rockets small ball experiment. The Clips beat them up inside and shut down their potent perimeter game. But more concerning is the team's lack of energy in this week's pair of games. The team that had been so good in recent weeks appeared not to show up in Madison Square Garden or Thursday in Toyota Center, and they got they paid for it.
More importantly, there should be a real discussion about the extremes the team has gone to when it comes to shooting from distance. Russell Westbrook adjusted his game when he wasn't making them early in the season. He brought back his midrange game and takes it to the basket far more often. He's now one of the best scoring players in the paint in the league.
The threes, layups and free throws mantra is, frankly, more concerning than their overall size when the threes aren't falling. We saw that play out in real time in a game with significant consequences when they went 0-27 against the Warriors in the playoffs two years ago. At some point, there must be a fail safe, fallback option when your shot simply isn't falling like Thursday.
They remain fourth in the West, now two-and-a-half back of Utah and three-and-a-half back of the Clippers. But they are tied with Utah (the Rockets own the tiebreaker) and just one-and-a-half games up on Oklahoma City and two ahead of Dallas. The Western Conference is brutally tough and the Rockets can't afford to string together any more weeks like this one.
Fortunately, they face three sub-.500 teams before going to L.A. for a showdown with the Lakers. If they keep playing the way they are now, the Lakers are the least of their worries.