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What is hurting the Rockets and how is it fixed?

There's good news and bad news.  Considering that it has nothing to do with a laptop or a cheetah, I'll just tell it all to you at the same time:

The Rockets beat the Timberwolves.  But it took 3 OTs to do it.

So, uh, yeah - the Rockets got a win over a Western Conference opponent.  But the Timberwolves really, really suck - a LOT - and should not have posed anywhere near the challenge they presented.  (If this were a little league game, a mother of one of the aforementioned sucky T-wolves would be yelling "hey!!!" in objection to this derogatory classification, while my emotionless response to her would be "well, they do...!").

But, in all seriousness, something is wrong.  In the last 6 games, the Rockets are lucky to be 2-4.  In fact, over the last 10 games the Rockets are lucky to be 5-5.  Of these five wins, three of them were against teams that are simply not in the same class as Houston (New Jersey, New York and Minnesota).  Add in the fact that the Rockets lost to the freakin' Bobcats - a team that was technically the "home" team but was playing in front of fewer fans than would appear at a William Hung concert.  If we look deep beyond the mere outcomes of these games, a scary pattern will emerge:

The Rockets tend to build early leads... often in double figures... but then they spontaneously get complacent and these leads disappear.  And then they lose and/or struggle to beat mediocre teams.

Normally I'd have a ready-made excuse or explanation to share.  But this time I do not.

Yes, there are a multitude of potential factors to consider:

  • The inevitable January/February lull
  • Trevor Ariza being the one taking too many of the available shots
  • Teams adjusting to Carl Landry's status as "go-to" player
  • Teams adjusting to the Rockets' lack of frontcourt size
  • Coach Sleepy being back to his old tricks
  • Tracy McGrady (a whole subcategory of his own - good and bad)
  • Hangover from the holidays
  • NBA schedule makers hating the Rockets
  • Various small injuries to key players
  • Brian Cook continuing to be worthless
  • Trade rumors affecting mental focus
  • Not getting the ball to Luis Scola enough
  • Missing free throws (okay, this is never an acceptable excuse)
  • A general malaise by the entire 9 man rotation

I just do not think any one of these "factors" is the singular reason for the recent slump.  I think it's more of an attitude thing. 

The Rockets from two months ago simply ran teams off the court.  They out-hustled, out-fought, out-ran, out-jumped and out-thought the opposition.  But the NBA no longer overlooks the seemingly less talented Rockets (maybe because teams have quickly caught on that while the Rockets may lack a superstar, they have 9 really, really good players that play as a team and this is usually enough to beat the likes of Minnesota with relative ease).  Meanwhile, the Rockets are having trouble re-adjusting to being a team other teams are gunning for.  They can no longer sneak up on their opponents.  Not even New Jersey.  From one perspective this is a good thing.  From the other perspective, it's hard for them to play the "no one believes in us" card anymore.  The good guys may just need a new rallying cry (??).

Now, I don't want to sound like an eternal pessimist.  Because I truly believe the Rockets are special.  They've already mostly proven my "35 wins" prediction wrong.  Back in October, I would have jumped for joy if you told me the Rockets would be 22-17, in the playoff chase and also only 3.5 games out of first place (and only 1/2 a game behind the Spurs).  This is good news - the Rockets have built themselves a cushion few people expected them to have.  Especially me. 

Alas, now is not the time for the good guys to rest on their laurels.  I know -- I can be quite demanding even when proven wrong.  Additionally, now is the time for the Rockets to get back in gear, and hit the accelerator while they are at it.  Here is what we are looking at over the next 13 games:

@ San Antonio
Chicago (2nd end of back-to-back)
Golden State
@ Memphis
Philly (2nd end of B2B)
@ Miami

Then there is the All-Star break.  Then we get to beat up on the Utah Jazz (at home this time).  Now, purely on paper, the Rockets - if they get their act back together - should be able to run off a nice 9-4 streak here.  The only truly scary games would be @ San Antonio (but the Spurs are struggling, too), Phoenix (their style mimicks our style and they are simply more athletic), and maybe the @ Miami game (as we know how much referees love Dwyane).  I would gladly take a 31-21 record into the All-Star break.  (FYI - last year the Rockets had 33 wins at the break.)

I guess I am just anxious to see the Rockets get back to kicking ass the way they should be.  Make the smart pass, don't take the first open three pointer just because it's available (looking at you, Trevor), box out on defense, and next time someone has a chance to tie the game with a "3" just foul them and limit them to a max of 2 points.  And yes, please, give Luis Scola the ball more on offense.  He's too nice to demand it.

Oh, and yeah, this Rockets weblog pep rally is sponsored by T-Mobile.  I think.