One of the unique anomalies of the Rockets title runs in 1994 and 1995 is they did not have to beat Seattle either time. The team that is now in Oklahoma City was then called the Sonics and their swarming defense was the bane of Hakeem Olajuwon's existence. During the All-Star weekend in Houston last year, former Sonics guard Gary Payton said the thing he remembered most about Houston is how the Rockets couldn't beat them.
Fortunately for the Rockets, the Sonics were knocked out of the playoffs by other teams those two years and the trophies landed in Houston. The next season, however, the Rockets were swept by Seattle in the second round of the playoffs and the Sonics reached the title round only to lose to Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The Rockets even re-tooled their roster, trading for Charles Barkley to help them against Seattle.
It is possible that this year's version of the Sonics for the Rockets is the LA Clippers as the Rockets dropped their third game in three tries against LA Wednesday night 101-93. They finished their longest road trip of the year 3-2, a decent mark, but with only really one quality win against Phoenix, and only 1-2 in national TV appearances. Against the Clippers, it wasn't the bright lights that appeared to take them down by the 20 turnovers.
The Clippers turned those 20 turnovers into 30 points in a see-saw game through most of three quarters. The bench, for once, was better than the starters for the most part, but the stars for the Clippers exposed holes at two positions where the Rockets are vulnerable.
Blake Griffin dominated early scoring 25 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. Chris Paul didn't have a great shooting night, but still went for 14 points and 9 assists. His backup Darren Collison, who played nearly as many minutes as Paul, had 19. On the other side, Terrence Jones looked lost scoring 4 points and grabbing 5 rebounds in only 19 minutes. And despite some pesky defense on Paul, Patrick Beverly only had 5 points and 5 assists. Jeremy Lin had 6 points on 2-8 shooting.
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As the Rockets head down the stretch run, their consistent problem with turnovers and struggles at power forward and point guard have become more noticeable, the weaknesses more glaring. No team can have all stars at every position, but there is no question they are below average at two spots on the floor while being elite at two others (center and shooting guard) and very good at a third (small forward). They should be able to grow with Jones and Donatas Montejunas, though that make take a season or two more of development, but it is clear they are playing a pair of decent backup point guards, particularly when lining them up against Paul, arguably the best at his position in the game. But, on Wednesday, they weren't alone in their struggles. Chandler Parsons, battling through the effects of some kind of cold or upper respiratory distress, was only 3-13 from the floor for 7 points, and James Harden wasn't good from the floor going only 6-16 while managing 18 points. Dwight Howard was the most effective starter with 23 points and 11 rebounds and recently acquired swing man Jordan Hamilton came off the bench for another solid outing scoring 16 points including 4-8 from the three point line.
But, with the 30 points off turnovers and yet another 19 second chance points, the Clippers were gifted nearly half their points. That combined with another poor start and some lackluster defense was no match for the Clippers, who have become a thorn in the Rockets side as the two teams battle for playoff position.
In the race for Western Conference supremacy, it is becoming clear the top three teams are the Thunder, the Spurs (still, after all these years) and the Clippers. After those, there is a drop to the Rockets and Trailblazers before reaching a group that includes Golden State, Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis.
Of course, this is how it goes for a team that is really only in its first season together as a whole. Teams like the Clippers and Thunder have had their rosters assembled for several seasons and the results are beginning to show. No one wants to be patient, waiting for the Rockets to mature and develop the kind of chemistry needed to win big games, on the road and under the spotlight of a national TV audience. But, it takes a lot more than just throwing a bunch of players together to contend for a title in the NBA. There's still plenty of season left, but the Rockets need to figure out how to beat the Clippers lest they become their modern day version of the Sonics of old.