Rewind to Saturday night. The Rockets had just finished up losing to the New Orleans Pelicans, 110-108, in a game they were leading by double digits for most of the first half. In the process, the Rockets undid all of the goodwill they'd just rebuilt with their fan base 24 hours prior after beating the San Antonio Spurs, 88-84, on Christmas Day. Yes, this year's iteration of the Rockets couldn't even properly let us enjoy the biggest win of the season.
So it was after that New Orleans loss that Rockets interim head coach (and honestly, until the team starts looking remotely like last season's team, the "interim" tag needs to be affixed) J.B. Bickerstaff chose to have his first presidential moment as the leader of this schizophrenic outfit, firing off this salvo in his post game interview:
“We have to solve the core of our issue. There’s a reason why this team is so up-and-down. There’s a reason why when things are really good, things are good, when things are bad, things are bad. So to a man, starting with me, we have to solve the issue.
“Our issue is doing things right because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s going to get me a bucket, not because it’s going to get me a shot, not because I get the glory. That’s not what this is about. And that’s what our problem is right now.
We play San Antonio last night, we play a wonderful game, we play a beautiful game on both sides of the ball. We come out here tonight, things aren’t easy, things don’t go our way and we turn into the ugly Rockets again. That’s frustrating for me, frustrating for all of us I’m sure, but it’s not treating the game the right way. Over and over again, we’ve disrespected the game. Our priorities need to be clear. And I need to do a better job of playing the people whose priorities are clear.”
I'll say this for J.B. Bickerstaff — if it doesn't work out for him as a head coach, he's got a future as a scout, because his assessment of the team was spot on. Unfortunately, right now, he's paid to fix problems, not merely point them out, and if the first game following Bickerstaff's integrity-questioning siege is any indication, the whole thing went in twelve ears and out twelve others.
On Tuesday night, the Rockets shot 54 percent from the field. They shot 55 percent from three point range. They led by double digits for most of the night. So naturally, they lost to the Atlanta Hawks, 121-115. Because they're the Rockets. This is what they do, at least this season. They show the ability to toy with teams, and then when they get bored, they turn their "RESPECT THE GAME"-meter down to its lowest setting, and proceed to get throttled in the turnover battle 19-12 (a direct reflection of basketball IQ) and on the offensive glass 17-7 (a direct reflection of desire).
And when it's time to actually make a play late in the game to undo all of the careless bullshit, James Harden dribbles the shot clock out, or Trevor Ariza is put in a position where he needs to dribble (Has there ever been a more athletic player who looks more frightened dribbling a basketball than Ariza?), or whatever. You know how it ends.
Right now, the only thing different with the Bickerstaff-coached Rockets than the Kevin McHale-coached Rockets is that Bickerstaff is getting longer stretches of focused play and shorter stretches of bullshit play, which has been good enough for them to go 12-10 on Bickerstaff's watch against one of the worst schedules in the league thus far. Right now, the Western Conference is serving as an enabler for the team's lack of urgency as it would take a catastrophe double the size of the one we're already experiencing for them to miss the playoffs. As bad as the Rockets have played, 16-17 on the season, they're still three games ahead of 13-20 Portland for the nine seed.
But we're told by Daryl Morey and anyone else who speaks for the team that NBA titles are all that matters, which is a commendable mindset. Right now, though, the ceiling for this team feels like getting to the six seed so they can avoid Golden State for as long as possible in the postseason. When espousing their faith in the team, many (including Morey himself) will bring up the phrase "Western Conference finalist last season" in supporting their argument, and while factually correct, perhaps the deep playoff run last year gave a false sense to everyone that this was the group that could win a title.
After all, if not for a final-day-of-the-season upset by New Orleans over the Spurs, the Rockets would've been in a 4 versus 5 matchup with Portland before getting fed to Golden State a round earlier. And if not for an insane fourth quarter of basketball in Game 6 against the Clippers, they'd have been ousted in six games in that series. Would Morey and Les Alexander have brought back virtually the entire roster of a second round loser? Who knows, but the point is that they were way closer to being a second round loser than an NBA title contender.
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Golden State showed them that. In five games.
Speaking of Golden State, they come to town tomorrow night. And they ain't New Orleans or Atlanta. After that, the Rockets have road trips to San Antonio and Utah. Indiana comes to town. Another road trip to Memphis looms, as does LeBron's only appearance in Houston this season. And that's all in the first two weeks of 2016.
Winter is coming, Rockets fans. It could get uglier before it ever gets better.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.