Every great team has a defining moment. A Matrix-like event where a game designed to be played fast instead slows down to a crawl for the collection of 13. Driven by will, desire, preparation, chemistry and talent, a group of men come together for a common purpose and become more than just good. They become great. They become The One.
20 years ago this very week, a 6th-seeded Rockets squad looking to defend it's title came into a second round series with the high-flying Phoenix Suns as major underdogs, and despite defeating the Utah Jazz in round one, had yet to really come together as a legitimate title threat.
But down 3 - 1 to the Suns, two superstars, an ex-All-Star coach, and a group of role players remade mid-season due to trade (similarities anyone?) came together and allowed a game 5 overtime victory to propel them into three straight wins, a historic series comeback that culminated with "The Kiss of Death" game and eventually a second straight NBA title. It was the last time we've been cheering into June for our Rockets.
This current version of the Rockets lacks such a moment of cohesion. They remain just a group, a shapeless mound of clay, yet to become a fully formed unit. They're working towards a common goal, yes, but seem to be working independent of one another, like office workers in a cubical village, going about their day completely separated from one another by drab, cork board walls.
Where a lock down defensive effort was required in game 4, the Rockets gave up 128 points and allowed the Clippers to shoot 49 percent, including 41 percent from three. They've now given up an average of 119.5 points per game in this series.
Where a fluid, inside-out and drive-and-kick offense was needed, the Rockets instead turned the ball over 18 times, shot 41 percent from the field and scored just 95 points. They were stagnant, sloppy and completely shut down inside and off the drive by DeAndre Jordan's presence.
Where transcendent games by the Rockets two superstars were needed, James Harden scored 21 points on 5 - 12 shooting. Dwight Howard had just 7 points and 6 rebounds in 18 foul-plagued minutes before being removed from the game on a simultaneous double-whammy of 6 personal fouls and 2 technicals.
Where significant bench contributions were needed from the two main energy guys in Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, the Rockets instead got 1 point and 4 rebounds from Smith and 4 points and 2 rebounds from Brewer.
The duo has now combined to average just 14 points per game this series while shooting under 30 percent from the field, including just 2 - 21 from three after playing a key role in dispatching of the Dallas Mavericks in round one.
But perhaps worst of all, the most heinous crime in a bloody scene rife with them: where legitimate adjustments were need by Kevin McHale to deal with a laundry list of problems -- Blake Griffin's general studliness, hot three-point shooting, Jordan's owning the paint -- McHale instead presented the basketball world with a coaching "don'ts" tour de force.
He made the decision to foul Jordan... and foul Jordan... and foul Jordan. And then he made the decision to foul Jordan some more. In all, the Rockets sent Jordan to the foul line 34 times, committed 40 total personal fouls and 3 technical fouls. McHale also failed to make any real strategic adjustments of note and failed to get his team under control emotionally before the bottom fell out.
The Rockets descended into an embarrassing lack of composure on the court once the game got chippy, forcing Reggie Miller into saying, "The Rockets don't believe they can beat this team."
It's an assessment that doesn't look too far off at the moment, as the Rockets head back to Houston down 3 -1 and licking the wounds of the world class spanking they received in L.A.
It's also an assessment that, if true, could have franchise-changing ramifications for the Rockets. Should they go down to the Clippers without so much as a wimper, continuing 20 years of Rockets playoff heart break, this squad could look drastically different next season.
Smith and Brewer, keys to keeping this season afloat at times, are both unrestricted free agents at season's end and could easily find themselves moving on as mercenaries for hire if the Rockets are bounced.
Pablo Prigioni and Jason Terry are both pushing 40 and living on borrowed time. Who knows how much either one has left. They're both already major defensive liabilities.
Dwight Howard's future with franchise certainly enters into question, as 22 million in salary, 30 years of age, a bad back, bad knees, and back-to-back playoff failures will all be taken into consideration.
Even Kevin McHale, despite his recent extension, could (and should) end up on the hot seat if this ends up being the epic evisceration it currently appears. McHale's lack of adjustments, his inability to take team to the next level and his inability to even have them properly motivated for each game in the post season can't go un-noticed by Daryl Morey.
Lose Tuesday night in Houston, and this is all on the table.
There is one other option however. And that's to look back 20 years almost to the day, and see another talented, but unfocused Rockets group just looking for the right moment to actually grow up into a team rather than simply a collection of talent. To hit on all cylinders. To finally put it all together in that moment when the Matrix slows down.
A 3 -1 hole is deep, but it's not an impossibility. And whether or not the Rockets can get out of it will define the fate and look of this squad for the next several seasons.