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Rockets vs. Magic: Hoping, Waiting, Wishing

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“I’ve been on teams where there’s no hope. This is a situation that it’s far from a team with no hope. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty. We don’t have that look.” - Rockets forward Shane Battier, following Houston’s 97-92 loss to Orlando Wednesday night.

Something’s missing.

Do the Rockets lack heart? Passion? Leadership? No doubt plenty of fans are nodding their head in agreement at all three this morning after watching Houston lose for the fourth time in five games. But those qualities are rather difficult to measure and define. What can be said without even the slightest hint of hesitation is that any discussion which dares to ask “What are the Rockets missing?” should begin and end with “shots.” Lots and lots of them, in fact.

Last night’s 97-92 loss to Orlando which saw Houston repeatedly misfire from both the field and free throw line was not an aberration. This is a team which ranks in the bottom third of the league in field goal, three point and free throw percentage. If you’re looking for the Western Conference equivalent of the Chicago Bulls, this is it. Both teams came into the season with lofty expectations after posting solid campaigns in ’06-’07. Both earned reputations as defensive stalwarts who needed a bit more offensive punch in order to take the next step. And both have flopped miserably to date, primarily because of an absolute abhorrence of anything having to do with an orange sphere making its way through a nylon net. No, the Rockets haven’t been quite as bad as Chicago, but just to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Bulls is damning enough.

Of course, it’s one thing to miss an inordinate number of shots, quite another to appear listless while doing so. During the second and third quarters of last night’s game, the sleepwalking version of Rockets (i.e. the team which showed up in Toronto and Philadelphia) somnambulated their way around the Toyota Center floor. By the time they awoke and put forth maximum effort, it was too little too late.

“You look at the trend in our games, a lot of times we come out for the third quarter and we’re flat,” says Bonzi Wells. “Seems like the other team always makes their run in the first 5-6 minutes and we look at each other and got our heads down, and then we’ve got to fight to get back in it. We’ve got to make a conscious effort to play for four quarters and 48 minutes, instead of giving a hard effort sometimes, and then taking a couple plays off, because those plays off are killing us right now.”

Bonzi’s right, but here’s what seems difficult to fathom: This team is in the midst of month-long malaise. They had three days off before Orlando came to town, and they were playing in front of their home crowd. So how on earth could effort be a problem in that particular game?

“I wish I knew,” says Wells. “If I knew, I’d write it on the board. I’d send everybody an e-mail, memo, or tell them to their face. But I don’t know.”

A clearly downtrodden Chuck Hayes echoed Bonzi’s sentiment: “I don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. We’re all trying to figure that out… It’s going to be tough here in these games on the road, but that’s the league for you.

“We definitely feel we can get it going in the right direction. We just gotta find that momentum. The way we played in the 4th—yeah we lost—but if we can just carry that over to the next game, and continue that through the whole 48 minutes, maybe we can get ourselves into a rhythm and get a swagger to the way we’re gonna play for the rest of the season.”

“Maybe.” That word stands out like a Dwight Howard dunk. Do the Rockets actually believe they can turn this thing around? To a man, they say they do, although some are more convincing than others. And then there’s T-Mac. A day earlier, when asked by Florida Today if he still had faith that Houston could shake its funk, he responded: “Absolutely. Will we? I don't know, it’s up to us."

Perhaps I’m picking on McGrady when he was merely being honest. Maybe I’m reading too much into things. But his answer certainly doesn’t send the kind of strong, positive message you’d hope to hear from one of your team leaders. Of course, powerful leadership isn’t T-Mac’s calling card, and it never will be. The bigger concern is that there are simply far too many times when it’s difficult to divine the difference between McGrady and his cousin (Vince Carter). Both are spectacularly talented. And both are… well, let’s just say neither one is going to win a Tough Man competition anytime soon.

So the question remains: Who or what can spark these Rockets? Do they even need a spark, or are made baskets the cure all? Anyone who’s watched the Spurs this decade knows that histrionics and a fiery on-court demeanor are not necessary components of success. Still, it’s hard to watch Houston’s energy lapses without wondering whether a little extra fire and passion would help.

“I try my best when I can do it,” says Wells. “It’s gotta take all of us to bring something from within. Like you said—that fire—you’ve gotta put that on the court. Some guys just don’t have it. Some guys can just go out there and do their job and don’t care, but I’m just not one of those guys. It really frustrates me when we lose and hopefully guys can just look around this locker room and know it’s something special, and hopefully start giving 100 percent effort—not saying that they don’t—but at all times, including myself.”

Not surprisingly, Shane Battier offers a different take: “I think that’s a sports cliché. You don’t really have anyone in your locker room giving the Knute Rockne speech anymore, firing the team up every single night. What you have to do is become a team with a determination to come out and do your job, and the good teams in this league have that. The teams that don’t, struggle. That’s what we’re trying to develop.”

And you believe that’s going to come around?

“[Pause] You have to. You have to keep the faith.”

That pause says it all. The Rockets believe… sort of.

Do you? - Jason Friedman

Miscellaneous: Bonzi Wells was a horrendous -17 during his 31 minutes on the court last night. He continues to rank at the bottom of Rockets regulars in +/-. With McGrady’s injury, Bonzi’s playing time is unlikely to dwindle, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be able to maintain his spot in the rotation with numbers like that. With Wells’s offensive production spotty at best, it’s only a matter of time before his matador defense earns him a permanent spot on the bench… Yao Ming had 9 points through the game’s first nine minutes and didn’t score again the rest of the half. Considering T-Mac’s injury, it’s hard to fathom why Yao was not more involved in the offense for extended periods of time.

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