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The Houston Rockets play jazz. I hope you like jazz.

The Houston Rockets play improvisational jazz on an NBA court. When it works, it is art. When it fails its the opposite of art.


The Rockets play jazz. I hope you like jazz.

The Houston Rockets are like a team of mad young jazz players - feisty, dripping talent, erratic, ingenious, ambitious, prone to excess, prone to wonder, seeking briliance and beauty above all. They're from the wrong side of the NBA tracks, undrafted, the 2nd round, and traded away because a great team thought a shot blocker with range was a better fit than the new marquee SG of the NBA.

In a very real way, nobody wanted them like the Rockets wanted them. They love showing the world that they have the chops, that they can play the most beautiful game in a way no one else dares.

These Rockets played the regular season at a pace higher than anyone else in the NBA. They scored more than anyone in the NBA. They run no plays. They have no sheet music. How could that happen?

The Rockets are largely making it as they go along, every single possession. They're playing jazz. There are some central ideas, themes: the spread pick and roll, the fast break, the three pointer or layup, the breakneck bebop pace. The Rockets play variations on these, and almost no others, weaving those threads into captivating basketball.

There are a couple of soloists who will take over for a bit while the rest of the band watches, and waits to see if it all will be suddenly handed off to them. There's a featured soloist with a hepcat beard, and he's able to do things, see things on the court in way no one else does.

With rare exception, the rest of the team can take the handoff from the soloist and make the play. If the Rockets ran a (plausible next season) lineup of Lin, Harden, Parsons, Jones, Motiejunas every single player could bring the ball upcourt, initiate the offense, and drive to the basket, shoot a three, or make a pass. Stop and think a moment or two about the level of all-around basketball talent that takes.

Even with Asik in, steady with the beat, and the defensive focus, on the big bass, this is one hell of a quintet. No one else is doing this, and at this moment, no one else in the NBA can do it.

Like improvisational jazz, it is not all improvised. The Rockets can't make every single bit up as they go along. The players must practice, they must get to know the main ideas, and one another. It is far from easy to play this way, to be good enough to play that way. To be good enough to compete the way the Rockets do, successfully, at their age and experience level, is stunning. But this is all still juvenilia, the creations of their mature period await.

It is difficult for well-trained and excellent traditional musicians to initially play improvisational jazz. It takes work, and the development of a specific sort of approach to music to be any good at it. It is difficult, conversely, for jazz musicians to play in a more rigid and traditional context immediately. Either sort of gifted player can do both, perhaps, but few float back and forth at the highest level of musicianship between the forms.

Demanding both sorts of performance in the same game, let alone the same possession, is probably folly.

Sometimes live jazz goes beautifully - every note is right, the whole band is swinging, players moving freely, gracefully, doing what they choose, individually, as part of a harmonious whole. One phrase sets up another, and it all flows like sweet lightning around the court.

Sometimes it does not go beautifully. The solos don't work, the notes seem harsh and flabby, the rhythm disconnected. No music (that isn't intentionally ugly) is quite so bad, quite so painful and grating, as improvisational jazz gone wrong. It's like watching a destruction derby of full septic-tank trucks. But the Rockets are not going to stop playing jazz because of it, there's not a Bach partita waiting somewhere in the wings.

If you insist on rehearsed perfection, you'll miss the heavenly moments when the quintet is really cooking.It's amazing, astonishing. It's art. Lesser lights, playing from their sheet music, are sometimes simply blown off the stage. That is what the hot Rockets can do.

When they're off, it is brutal, and it is difficult to endure. That is what else the Rockets can do. There is usually not much in the middle.

Unlike nearly every other team in the NBA, however, the Rockets are capable of producing something sublime, something genuinely artful, on any night, against nearly any opponent. They are also capable of walking into a friendly room, starting up, and making that friendly crowd yearn to be somewhere, anywhere, else.

Some people don't like improvisation, and they don't like jazz. Let me say this to you - if you don't like basketball jazz, the Rockets likely aren't the team for you. Let me say that one more time - if you don't like improvisational basketball, these Rockets probably aren't for you.

That's fine, not everyone likes jazz. Many, perhaps most, don't. That's a matter of taste. But I'm done reading rabid complaints that basically boil down to "I don't like what this team is or how they do what they do". (That's certain of you told.)

In fact, the most odious complaints can be reduced to a fundamental misperception (or dislike) of what the Rockets are doing. I'm sorry if you can't pick up what the Rockets are laying down. Head on back to squaresville with your 1-4 stack, daddio.

The other major complaint is that nobody else gets more solo time than James Harden. Friends, he's the headliner, the reason the team is still playing. Get used to it - Coltrane had bad nights, but he was always the main attraction,even with an all-time great like McCoy Tyner in the band.

The Rockets aren't going to run plays, because like an improv jazz quintet, they don't have any plays to run. They eschew plays, perhaps they even disdain plays. The world "plays" makes them blue.

The coach isn't going to sit there with his baton, glaring and pointing, and practically moving the performers like some cartoon conductor. The most he's going to do is call a set break, give the main act a breather, change up the player mix a bit to see if the flow might not be a little better. He's not conducting a symphony, he's leading a jazz band. The work was done before the game, and the team is either going to cook, or not.

So if you're waiting to see written sheet music, a conductor flailing his arms, and a set list where every note is planned, practiced and known in advance, then played with glossy perfection, you're going to wait a long time. That kind of music when done well is generally considered art, and I like it, too. It is not, however, the art the Rockets practice.

It may not win every night, but it can be art every night, and not many teams can say that.

The Rockets play jazz. I hope you like jazz.