Rockets Faltering at Midway Point Need a Dose of "Spirit"

Coach Mike D'Antoni is always talking about spirit. His team sure needs some.
Coach Mike D'Antoni is always talking about spirit. His team sure needs some. Photo by Eric Sauceda
Coach Mike D'Antoni is fond of mentioning the need for his players to play with great spirit. It is roughly the equivalent of effort and energy combined. The good teams have it. The bad teams don't. As the Rockets passed the halfway point of the season on Monday night teetering somewhere between those two extremes, they seemed to take a step in the wrong direction with yet another come-from-behind loss, this time to an under-manned and not nearly as talented OKC squad.

In the process, they went 9-45 from the three point line including James Harden's 1-17 from beyond the arc. It broke a streak of 97 consecutive games with at least 10 threes in a game and pushed the team deeper down the list of Western Conference playoff teams. They are now in sixth just two games ahead of the Thunder.

In the last five games (they are 1-4), they are shooting 43 percent from the floor and 32 percent from three, a particularly bad stat for the team that, by far, shoots more distance shots than any other team. They are also giving up over 116 points per game to opponents. How's that for spirit?

Most teams go through some doldrums during the month of January. It's a tough time of year to motivate, before the trade deadline and the All-Star break, and still a long ways from the playoffs. But the Rockets look like a team that just doesn't know who it is right now. They certainly don't look like a team with high hopes for the playoffs.

Even last year, with injuries and in-season moves, the Rockets managed to stay above water. Once they got everyone back, they were one of the best defensive squads in the NBA and looked dangerous down the stretch. This year, they don't have any significant injuries, so they can't exactly look forward to being healthy. So, what gives?

Yes, they are going through a brutal shooting slump. Yes, there are several guys like Danuel House, who are struggling in general. And Harden has had a particularly tough couple weeks. But the eye test says things are worse than some poor shooting.

Just watching the Rockets, it's difficult to view them as anything other than mediocre at the moment. They don't do anything all that well. They can outscore you, when they are shooting well. They can defend, when they make the effort to do so. But they so often don't do either of those things.

Add to that a staggering lack of length in the front court and a group that just doesn't appear to have the defensive mettle to stand with the best teams in the league (or some of the worst at the moment), and there is real concern to be had at Toyota Center.

Barring a miraculous turnaround, which isn't out of the question, mind you, it looks like this season will be D'Antoni's last. The Rockets didn't renew his contract and some of his in-game adjustments, never mind the ability to motivate his guys, are up for rather rigorous debate.

There is also the issue of talent. The Rockets just don't appear to have enough on the roster to challenge the best in either conference, and not a whole lot to offer in a deal to get them what they need.

It is a very complicated situation with no obvious answers. But, they have to dig themselves out. The Rockets are unlikely to miss the playoffs given the teams below them, but if they want to get closer to the top than the bottom, they will need to get some of that spirit their coach always talks about and get in gear. Half of the season is gone. They better not waste the second half.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke