Going into Wednesday's tilt with the Portland Trail Blazers and heading into the All-Star break, the Rockets were at a crossroads. Win tonight, and despite all the ups and downs of the first half, they could go into the break a winning basketball team on track to make the playoffs. Lose, and they'd drop to 9th place in the West.
At least initially, they seemed to understand the importance of going into the mid point with a little upward momentum, as they came out of the gates with a plan and a purpose.
The Rockets repeatedly went to Dwight Howard early in the shot clock, looking to get some easy buckets to spark a quick lead, and Howard responded with 11 points in the first 6 minutes. His success down low allowed James Harden to shake free, and the duo shot a combined 8-8 in jumping out to a 20-11 lead.
Dwight Howard with a strong first quarter; 11pts on 5-5 shooting .https://t.co/rvBFF42rx1— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) February 11, 2016
The Rockets looked sharp, they were moving the ball, and playing with some hustle. The deep ball wasn't falling, but it appeared as though there may have been some carry-over from the previous night's tight battle with the Warriors.
But 55 games into the season, a team's identity is already established, and in Houston, it's been one of frustrating inconsistency. Only by staying true to that form, did the Rockets not disappoint.
A second-quarter offensive collapse saw the Rockets score just 17 points in the period, and while their defense wasn't terrible (the Blazers shot just 37.4 percent for the quarter), Houston still couldn't buy a bucket from beyond the arc, finishing the first half shooting 3-16 from three. They turned the ball over 13 times and went into the half down 57-46. Perhaps worst of all, they were completely devoid of the ball movement, side movement, and energy they came out of the gates with in the first.
The personality of inconsistency carried over into the third frame, where the Rockets plugged the leak in the offense by shooting 61.9 percent in the period and putting up 35 points, but this time, the defense didn't hold up, allowing the Blazers to score 35 themselves to hold the 11 point lead.
The high point of the period was a strong hustle play by Montrezl Harrell (what other kind does this guy make), who replaced a struggling Josh Smith. Smith took a few ugly threes in the first half and was never seen from again, playing only 6 minutes.
Harrell, meanwhile, gave the Rockets their first shot in the arm since the first quarter by doing this:
That @MONSTATREZZ steal & slam to end the 3rd strong. pic.twitter.com/UXAoOzsOrT— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) February 11, 2016
Inexplicably, we'd only see Harrell for another 3 minutes of court time.
The Rockets, meanwhile, went back to expressing their season-long helter skelter identity by cutting the Blazers lead to just 5 points with 9 minutes left in the game, only to watch the bottom fall out in a series of turnovers combined with a slew of Damian Lillard (who lead the Blazers with 31 points) jumpers and drives inside.
Portland charged out to a 14-2 run that effectively ended the game and sealed the Rockets' fate for the first half the the year with a 116-103 defeat.
James Harden led the Rockets with 34 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists, while Dwight Howard pitched in 28 points and 13 rebounds, but Harden also turned the ball over 8 times, and the Rockets turned it over 20 times as a team. They now have 43 turnovers in their last two games against the Blazers.
Howard, despite the nice box, also finished with a plus-minus of minus-24, and no one else on the Rockets finished in double figure scoring. The bench was completely non-existent, being outscored 33-17.
The Rockets have spent over half the season establishing themselves, who they are this season, and what will define them, and in that sense, this game was a microcosm: Inconsistent effort, poor defense, and plenty of turnovers, mixed in with a few flashes of what might have been.
But more important than all that, as we head into the All-Star break, the Rockets have defined themselves as a losing basketball squad (they dropped to 27-28 with the loss), and with the slippage to ninth place, are now a lottery team.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2015-2016 Houston Rockets.