The Rockets took a shellacking on Saturday night. An unfortunate sign of what to expect should they finish in the 7th or 8th seed and end up playing the Spurs or the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, the final score ended up a somewhat respectable 10-point deficit at 104-94, but the Rockets were down 31 points at one point and were completely overwhelmed by the Spurs.
It started with a horrid first quarter in which the Rockets scored just 11 points on 27 percent shooting and found themselves in an immediate 15-point deficit from which they never recovered. Unfortunately for the Rockets, this type of slow start is something that continuously plagues them, as they've failed to hold a lead at the end of the first quarter in any of their last 9 consecutive games and also in 10 of their last 12. They hold a 4-8 record in that time frame.
It's just one of many of the numerous signs all season long that this team hasn't been playing with the night-in, night-out energy nor the chemistry to be any better than mediocre.
As amazing as last Thursday's dramatic, Beard-led, come-from-behind win over the Portland Trail Blazers was, it didn't appear to be a corner-turning moment, and another sluggish first quarter to ultimately set up a loss against the Spurs just reinforces that point.
In order to be successful in this league, a team can't be continuously fighting back from deficits, especially against the better squads. The Spurs are not the Blazers, and though the Rockets did have some moments against San Antonio, the sloppy first quarter was simply too much to overcome. Dwight Howard told ESPN's Calvin Watkins:
"I thought we played better after the first quarter. We got to put together some good runs on the defensive end from the beginning of the game. We started out, they got a big lead, and they never looked back."
And James Harden concurred:
"We got our shots, we just didn't knock them down. We played with some aggressiveness in the second half, but it was too little, too late."
While the players are ultimately responsible for their on-court performance, one of the primary duties of a head coach is properly motivating his players each and every night through an 82-game grind, and it's in this area in particular that interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has failed. It can be argued there's other areas of coaching failure as well, but that's a piece for another day.
As rumors continue to pop up about locker room strife, and the Rockets continue to start games out slow and under-perform in them overall, any optimism this team would wake up and snap out of their malaise after the All-Star break is fast slipping away. And unless Bickerstaff can quickly get some control over these Rockets, any hopes he had of remaining the team's coach in the long term are also slipping away along with the season.