Well, to start with: a supernova, the Rockets are not. To date, they’ve more closely resembled a red dwarf. That is to say, they’ve been cool in relation to their NBA brethren, and unable to stand out from the crowd. Their record sits at 10-9 after Wednesday night’s 105-92 victory over Memphis, suggesting Houston is an ever-so-slightly above average team. Which, as it turns out, they are. At least for the time being.
Everything about this team is a work in progress right now; its identity, its rotation, everything. When I asked the reporter sitting next to me to identify the Rockets’ problem, it took him little more than a nanosecond to respond: “its heart.” As in, the club does not have enough of it.
To be sure, the Rockets are a finesse team. It starts with its two superstars and filters down through the rest of the rotation. Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes are the only exceptions. But for what it’s worth, I don’t believe heart is the issue. McGrady and Ming care. A lot. As do most, if not all, of their teammates. Now could this club use an injection of attitude and grit?
Perhaps no one player symbolizes Houston’s heretofore roller coaster campaign more than last night’s hero, Bonzi Wells. Against the Grizzlies, he was dominant, providing the Rockets with that third scoring option they so desperately need. Of course, Memphis made things infinitely easier for Wells by spending much of the night guarding him with the likes of relative Lilliputians like Juan Carlos Navarro and Kyle Lowry. Still, give Bonzi credit. He finally eschewed the outside jumper and went to work down low. The results (24 points on 11-14 shooting) speak for themselves.
“[T-Mac] said they finally found me. I was on the back of a milk carton,” said a relieved Wells after the game. “It was good. I mean, it’s been a rough season for me personally around the basket and that’s my stuff right there. It’s so easy to hit lay-ups and I’ve been missing them. So hopefully that’s behind me and I’m going to start being a contributor on a consistent, nightly basis.”
That’s exactly what the Rockets need. It’s no coincidence that one of the Rockets best games of the season—their 89-81 win over the Spurs—came when Bonzi was a beast inside, delivering 14 points and 15 boards (seven of which came on the offensive glass). So that begs the question: Where has Bonzi been?
“Sometimes it’s tough on us when you just kind of stand around and watch Mac and Yao shoot the ball all the time,” explained Wells. “But that’s the plays that we’re calling, they’re our best players, so that’s the obvious [strategy]. But it’s better for us sometimes to get our rhythm together because, like I said, it takes a lot of pressure off them and they can have days like today where they don’t gotta do everything and have the cape on their back and save us.”
There’s undoubtedly some validity to Bonzi’s point about getting lost in the offense, but good role players know how to find their niche. Simply put: The Rockets can’t afford to receive this type of performance from Wells once every ten games. And there’s certainly no excuse for his recent aversion to going strong to the hoop, regardless of whether or not he contracted a case of the yips around the rim. As Bonzi pointed out: That’s his game. He’s made a nice living in the NBA thanks to his unique combination of strength and quickness. It makes him a match-up nightmare down low. So even a single 18-footer from Wells is still probably one too many.
Of course, it’s not solely Bonzi’s responsibility to complete Houston’s scoring triangle. Steve Francis, Shane Battier, and Luis Scola have to do their part, too. In Francis’s case, it’s more of a playing time issue right now, since there’s no denying he’s gotten the job done when the opportunity has presented itself. Trying to figure out why he only played nine minutes last night is admittedly a bit of a head-scratcher. But the Rockets cruised to victory, so let’s leave that argument dormant for the time being.
Up next for Houston is a three-game road swing out east, providing the Rockets an opportunity to build some momentum against the likes of New Jersey, Toronto and Philly. No, these aren’t gimmes, especially considering Houston’s streaky play to date. For every moment when it seems as if they’ve figured things out, there are at least twice as many indicating they haven’t got a clue. Which is why patience continues to be the buzzword in the Rockets locker room.
“It’s not frustrating because we’re building,” said Battier after the game. “It’s not about playing perfect basketball right now. We’re trying to build something and gain momentum, so by the time the schedule breaks in our favor, we’re in a position to take advantage of it. I think the Golden State Warriors were a perfect example last year. By the end, they were playing as well as anybody. Now, we want to win as many games as we can along the way, but this is about building and growing as a team.”
“We’ll figure it out. It’s gonna take some time. You gotta have some patience.”
Axl couldn’t have said it better himself. - Jason Friedman