The Rockets have a long, storied history of playing with heart and desire.
The mid-’90s teams that birthed the Clutch City moniker had it in spades. There was the 22-game win streak in 2008 done mostly without Yao Ming that ran practically on nothing but heart. I even wrote about their heart back in 2009 during their playoff series with the Lakers when I was covering the team for Empty The Bench (apologies for the Clutch Fans link. Empty the Bench is no longer active). There was, of course, also Game 6 against the Clippers.
There’s plenty more historical instances that I’m sure I’m overlooking, but you get the idea.
That’s why it’s disappointing then to hear what Mike D’Antoni said to ESPN’s Calvin Watkins after last night’s 117-108 loss to the Indiana Pacers in which the Rockets held a 17-point lead at one point in the second quarter. Sure, the shots just weren’t falling, with the team hitting on just 36 percent from the field, including a woeful 10-45 from deep. But the bigger issue, and the one that had the coach publicly giving his squad the business, was the team’s desire. D’Antoni said to ESPN:
“It was like five or six straight plays of being soft. Soft on getting back on defense, soft on rebounding and getting an outlet pass, just soft. Now that we let them get back in the game, they missed a lot of shots on their own in the very first quarter, and that wasn’t going to last the whole game, you knew that. But again, we’ve just got to have a little bit more fight. There’s just not enough fight out there. There’s just not enough.”
The Rockets have given up an average of 123.5 points per game over the last two games against Indiana and Minnesota after initially coming out of the break on fire against New Orleans. They were also outrebounded in both games, outscored in the paint and crushed in points off of turnovers. Some of it is personnel, as the Rockets continue to hunt for another wing stopper or a paint protector to give them some help defensively down the stretch, but a lot of it has been a lack of hustle. The coach pulled no punches with his squad.
“Every guy has got to examine himself. You’ve got to get it. ... You’ve just got to fight. I told them they don’t give championships up there for guys who just show up. You’ve got to go get it. A champion has a heart. Big heart, big heart and we haven’t shown that lately.”
Luckily, the players at least seem to be saying all of the right things, with James Harden and newcomer Lou Williams both agreeing with D’Antoni’s unfortunate assessment. Williams, in particular, inferred that the Pacers stepped up their intensity once they fell behind, and the Rockets didn’t quite have that extra gear to match, saying:
“I think early on we made some shots, got a big lead and probably felt like the game was coming to a squeeze, and we kind of got lax and they picked up their intensity and I don’t think we matched it after that.”
Regardless of what, if any, moves the front office makes on the buyout front, a major difference maker isn’t walking through that door. This team doesn’t have a huge front court, and it’s not filled with top-flight defenders outside of Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza. That’s not going to change. But what can change is the amount of effort put forth in critical situations.
It’s certainly no time to panic, as it’s just a two-game stretch (which the Rockets have gone 1-1) over a long, 82-game season (in which the Rockets have the fourth-best record in the league), but we’ve seen similar issues with mental lapses and flatlined intensity pop up from time to time this season.
But it’s good to see the coach call it like he sees it with the team heading down the season’s home stretch. Because when this team is firing on all cylinders, they’re a dangerous handful for any opponent, Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland included. Lackadaisical and unfocused, however, and things like sweeps at the hands of both Indiana and Miami happen.
If this year’s version of the Rockets are going to join in the long list of the franchise’s history with heart, they have another month and half to crank the intensity up a notch before the playoffs get here. Nothing would be more disappointing than an early postseason exit due to a lack of fight.