No matter how you slice it, there’s a new harsh reality in Houston.
“0-5, the only winless team left in the NBA.”
That’s what the sign hanging around the neck of the Houston Rockets reads after their ugly inability to close surfaced once again in a 124-121 overtime loss to the Spurs in San Antonio Saturday night.
And it gets worse. The Rockets lost Aaron Brooks, who scored 18 points in the first two periods, to what looked like a potentially severe ankle sprain (see: Video of the injury) when he launched a halfcourt bomb at the halftime buzzer and landed very awkwardly on Manu Ginobili’s foot. X-rays were negative, but you can just about bank on the team’s starting point wearing a suit for the next several games — and with their backup point, Kyle Lowry, battling back spasms, there’s a quarterback crisis in Houston.
Yet, despite all the doom and gloom, the Rockets, for the first time since the opener in Los Angeles, showed me something.
Trailing by 14 late in the third quarter and looking a bit frazzled from the Brooks injury, the Rockets could have easily stamped the envelope and mailed this one in. Instead, they found some heart, taking off on an 18-2 blitz, including 14 straight points, to snag a lead and turn this yawner into must-see TV.
We can talk all day about the Rockets problems — perimeter defense, three-point shooting, inability to close. All accurate. But any fan who has watched this team up to this early point of the 2010-11 season knows that Rick Adelman and the Rockets have yet to find any winning roster combinations. Not a one. There’s been nothing to count on. To Yao or not to Yao? Brad Miller or Jordan Hill? Is Kyle Lowry able to go? Can Chase Budinger hit a three? The Rockets haven’t found anything that clicks yet and as a result, the team has looked like an oil-water mix of offensive players and defensive specialists.
That’s why it was almost a relief to see this group mesh and put up some serious fight in the fourth.
A rookie stepped up. Ish Smith showed both why he went undrafted (4-16 shooting) and why the Rockets are looking to make other moves in order to keep him on the roster (7 assists). He had a chance to win the game in regulation but came up short on a 10-foot runner in the paint. He doesn’t have the scoring ability of a Brooks, but by constantly trying to create for his teammates, he showed precisely what the team has lacked with Lowry out.
Lee may have cost the Rockets the game with his Nick Anderson impression with 16 seconds to go, bricking a pair of freebies that could have put Houston up 4. Instead, Ginobili (28 points) tied the game with a stepback 16-footer and to overtime we went.
But you can’t dismiss Lee’s contributions to get the Rockets in that position in the first place. He scored 9 points in the fourth frame, stepped up the defensive intensity and was aggressive in pushing the tempo. Trevor Ariza is getting a ton of attention in New Orleans given their undefeated start, but I still wouldn’t want Trevor here as a big minute starter … and I’m still optimistic about what Lee will do.
Hayes was big as well, scoring 8 to go with 13 rebounds. Scola finished with 20 and 8 and is looking like the Rockets most reliable scorer in crunch time. Watch the play in the highlight clip above with 1:20 left in overtime — at a critical juncture in the game, Scola is just relentless in getting an offensive rebound and putting it back in.
Kevin Martin poured in 24 points in just 23 minutes before having to leave with an ankle injury (that didn’t look too serious). He and Brooks combined for 26 in the first quarter alone and the Rockets shot lights out to post 34 points in the period, but the Spurs matched it with 34 of their own and you were presented with a textbook illustration of how much pressure there is on the Rockets to score big when their defense is this porous.
I liked what I saw from Jordan Hill tonight. Hill, getting the start in place of Yao Ming, had a couple of solid moments defensively against Tim Duncan (19 points, 11 boards, 3 blocks) and blocked a pair of shots. He’s still developing as a player but he can’t do that without time — happy to see him off the DNP-schneid.
5 games in, we weren’t supposed to be in a state where the only wins we can discuss are the moral victories. Sure, that should absolutely change here Sunday when they come back home to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves — if it doesn’t, the ClutchFans panic level will hit code red — but 5 losses, all to Western Conference teams, has to put a damper on those contending hopes.
So right now, the Rockets have to change how they play. There’s got to be significant progress or there will need to be roster changes, but above all else, Adelman needs to find roster combinations that work, and he gets several bonus points from me if he can do it with Yao Ming. Saturday in San Antonio, he may have inched closer to finding that.