Last week, the Rockets made an early season trip south of the border to play a game in Mexico City. Basketball is an international game and like NFL games in London, sending NBA teams to other countries is good business. The Rockets took care of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but it would seem Mexico took care of them.
Since they returned from Mexico, they have slogged around the floor like they are suffering from Montezuma's Revenge. They have won two of three games, but not in impressive fashion. They survived the lowly Sixers and managed to score only 69 points in a near loss to the ailing Thunder. But, when they got to Memphis Monday night, they came up against an opponent that would capitalize on their offensive struggles and hand them their second loss of the season in a 119-93 drubbing that wasn't close by the end of the first quarter. Not exactly the best way to launch your new sports network, especially considering how a great deal more than 40 percent of the city can see you for the first time.
Despite one of the best records in the NBA, the Rockets are not one of the league's best teams, not by a long shot. They have feasted on weaker teams and beaten all of them, including a Spurs team resting its stars. Their only quality win was against the Heat and their two losses have come against Western Conference rivals Golden State and Memphis. In short, they may be winning games, but they aren't winning many that matter.
Recent struggles have been mostly due to abysmal shooting as they come crashing back down to earth from the lofty numbers of their first handful of games. James Harden continues to be one of the league's best scorers (though he only managed 6 against the Grizzlies) and Dwight Howard has been consistent, but Tevor Ariza's outside shooting has fallen off a cliff and, with Terrence Jones out possibly another month with a thigh contusion, they have yet to find a consistent scoring option beyond Harden and Howard.
Only three of their next nine games are against likely contenders, but three more include early season surprise teams like the Kings and Bucks as well as a home game against the always dangerous Suns. Tack on a struggling but still Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks team and the Rockets have no patsies over the next couple weeks.
The good news is they continue to be good defensively, one of the best in the league, which is a remarkable turnaround from last season. What hasn't changed, however, is their turnovers, ranking as one of the worst in the NBA. They also jack up more three pointers than any other team by a wide margin, part of a philosophy of threes or dunks championed by GM Darryl Morey. Statistically, it may be a wise move in the long haul, but it can make for some ugly nights when shots aren't falling and lately, nothing has been working on offense.
It is likely that neither the team that was setting records in double-digit victories early on nor the one that occupies this recent brutal stretch of games is the real Rockets. Morey claimed before the season started that this team will be better in April than they are at the start of the year. With the Jekyll and Hyde performances we've seen thus far, one would hope he is right, particularly in the Western Conference where only four games separate the top 10 teams. If the playoffs started tomorrow, San Antonio would be a seven seed and the Thunder would be deep in the lottery.
The question remains whether or not this roster has enough firepower to make a deep run in the playoffs. At the moment, one has to wonder if this group of players is good enough to make the playoffs, 8-2 record or not.
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