First things first: A game befitting the late, great MLK it wasn’t. The Rockets 96-89 victory over the woebegone Supersonics inspired neither hope nor confidence. That’s the bad news. Fortunately, the Rockets aren’t picky these days so they’ll happily take wins any way they can get them. Besides, when the regular season comes to an end, no one’s going to care whether this was a seven or 27 point victory.
But through the short-sighted glasses of yesterday, it’s hard not to view this lackluster effort as just the latest bit of evidence indicating this Rockets team is headed nowhere fast. Once again, they foolishly played with fire; allowing a lottery-bound club to come into their house and give them a scare. Houston avoided disaster this time, but with the sting of last week’s inexplicable loss to Philadelphia still fresh in everyone’s minds, how on earth could the Rockets almost allow a repeat?
After the game, coach Rick Adelman made little effort to hide his frustrations. “We just keep making the same mistakes over and over again,” he said.
But why? In the locker room, everyone had a theory.
“Sometimes when you have a good team come in like San Antonio, you really pay attention because you know you cannot make any mistakes against them,” said Yao Ming. “And then, teams like Seattle and Philadelphia, they don’t have a good record and you kind of relax. I know that’s not good.”
Said Rafer Alston, “Especially when you get a double digit lead, you have a tendency to ease up on the gas pedal, but I know—from the trends—we’re not a team that should ease up.”
And perhaps that’s the most maddening thing of all: This team knows the problem, they just can’t figure out the solution. Is it because they’re just not good enough to solve the equation?
Shane Battier offered a more pragmatic explanation.
“When you play aggressively and good team defense, that’s what affords you a lead,” he said. “And at the end of the games, especially when other teams start to get you out of your comfort zone, you sort of lose sight of that. You have to remind yourself constantly what’s good for you, and that’s aggressive play. You talk about a team keeping the lead in football; you always wonder why a team scores in the last two minutes, it’s because people play a passive, prevent defense. Same thing happens in basketball.”
While the Rockets attempt to divine a solution to that puzzle, they’re also dealing with the enigma known as Tracy McGrady. Monday’s game might as well have been called “The Tale of Two Macs.” In the first half, McGrady was but a whisper, simply hovering over the proceedings like a shadow. He couldn’t play defense and was reduced to the role of spot-up shooter and part-time facilitator on offense.
But we witnessed a definite plot twist in the second half. Once the knee warmed up, T-Mac turned into something closer to the play-making, shot-making McGrady of old; you know, the one who teases and tantalizes fans with his talent.
So what can we expect in the future from T-Mac? Your guess is as good as his.
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“Well today [the knee] was really bad,” McGrady said. “It’s gonna be that way because I can’t rest and let it heal all the way up.”
T-Mac said he’s about “75 percent” health-wise and continued to hint that he’s likely to give up his spot in the All-Star game due to his bum knee. In other words, if you were hoping McGrady’s solid second half was a sign that he’d turned the corner, think again.
Finally, I’m left with this flashback to my pre-season feature on GM Daryl Morey. Over and over again, he repeated how important point differential was when predicting future success. Well, halfway through the season, Houston is outscoring opponents by a measly two points. So perhaps it’s time to start thinking less about what this team could be, and more about what they are.
Then again, Dr. King taught us to dream. So dream on, Rockets fans. Dream on. – Jason Friedman