Two things that will make me angry enough to twist my face into a Kendrick Perkins scowl and start launching Mike Tyson threats: Any Houston sports-related headline that reads, “Houston, we have a problem,” and any Seattle-related story headlined, “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Stop it. The Apollo 13 launch was in 1970, a.k.a. FORTY years ago. The Tom Hanks movie (not Apollo 13, but the other one set in my hometown) came out in 1993, a.k.a. when Ken Griffey Jr. and Shawn Kemp were in their primes. This is old stuff we’re dealing with. Really old. Neither headline is cute, funny, timely or even semi-creative anymore. Just stop it. Seriously. You know who you are. STOP.
I bring this up because, as I sat down to write this column about the recent problems afflicting the Houston Rockets, I debated whether I should include a note to my editor that if he titled it, “Houston, we have a problem,” I was going to make him bleed his own blood.
So anyway … yeah … Something is wrong with the Rockets.
One of the NBA’s feel-good overachieving stories for a good chunk of this season, the Rockets have gone 8-14 since the beginning of January and have fallen into 10th place in the Western Conference. For a team that wasn’t expected to do much in the first place, it’s hard to say the wheels are falling off — but there’s definitely been some air leakage in the tires that’s making for a bumpy ride.
But again, the Rockets were never supposed to have very far to fall. Going into the season having lost Yao Ming for the duration with foot surgery, Ron Artest to the Lakers in free agency, and Tracy McGrady for some indefinite amount of time with his various injuries, Houston was supposed to be somewhere between rebuilding and running through the motions, waiting for Yao to get back and 2010 free agency.
And yet, they managed to stay in the playoff picture with a patchwork crew of career role players, sixth men, and second-round draft picks. Aaron Brooks was getting All-Star talk. Carl Landry was nearly a lock for Sixth Man of the Year. Luis Scola was going bucket-for-bucket and board-for-board with the best big men in the League. Trevor Ariza was holding his own in his first year as a featured scorer. Chase Budinger was going to make one of the All-Rookie teams. Rick Adelman was a Coach of the Year favorite. They had no real center, a couple of tiny point guards, wings who weren’t supposed to be able to shoot, and most importantly, no clearly defined go-to superstar.
For a while, it worked. The Rockets out-scrapped teams. They ran past them. They hit shots and locked up on D. Even when they lost, it was close. Then a little bit before All-Star break, Houston fell out of the playoff seeding. They were blown out by 33 points in Miami in the last game before the break, and in the four games after the break, dropped three of them (Utah, Indiana, New Orleans) thanks to late-game collapses typical of young teams with leadership issues.
In each of those games, the Rockets were in position to win late in the fourth quarter before their offense suddenly went south and the defense had its mismatches exposed. Against the Pacers and Hornets, Brooks in particular got carved up by T.J. Ford and Darren Collison down the stretch, while nobody was able to put the Rockets on their back and finish a winnable game.
“We learned on the fly,” Ariza told the Houston Chronicle after last night’s loss in New Orleans. “You can say that. But we have to figure out ways to close out games. When we make runs, we have to figure out how to make the run that will put us over the top.”
All of a sudden, the problems we assumed would plague Houston at the beginning of the season are surfacing now. Landry was their only reliable “Give me the rock and I’ll produce a bucket” low-post scorers (he’s actually among the NBA’s top fourth-quarter scorers), and he’s gone. Their shooters are more streaky shooters than pure shooters, and now the streaks have run cold.
Perhaps Kevin Martin — picked up in a deadline trade essentially for T-Mac and Landry — will be able to turn it around. He’s averaging 13.5 points on 28 percent shooting (8-for-28) from the field in his two games with Houston, but his offense will come around. Martin’s fluid style easily blends into what the Rockets want to do, and with Brooks, he’s another scorer who can create his own shot, get to the line, or spot up and hit threes.
With Martin and Brooks in the backcourt, Ariza and Shane Battier on the wings, and (presumably) a healthy Yao in the middle, the Rockets will be strong next season — even stronger if they can afford to re-sign Scola and/or Kyle Lowry, and rookies Budinger, David Andersen and Jordan Hill become solid players.
But that’s next year. Even if you see the rest of this year as an experiment for the Rockets, the playoffs are not out of the picture. For whatever reason, they’ve lost whatever it was they had earlier in the season that kept them in the running with the League’s elite squads.
Adelman succinctly put it best after the Hornets game: “I’m trying to figure this out. I really am.”
Do you think the Rockets can bounce back and make the playoffs this year?