The Houston Rockets are entering the Danger Zone as the playoffs loom right around the corner.
When teams head into April, they want to be rounding into form. The goal is to be playing your best basketball as the playoffs start. But the Rockets have not looked anywhere close to their best.
Since that game, head coach Mike D'Antoni has had to deal with injuries to Ryan Anderson and Harden himself, slowed by a wrist injury. D'Antoni patch-worked the offense and was able to lock up the three-seed, but for the past week or so it's felt like the team was just going through the motions. They haven’t been bringing the same fire that vaulted them to contender status early in the season.
After the Rockets lost to the Pistons on Friday night, Patrick Beverley even went as far to call out the team's effort.
"What happened tonight was bullshit, simple as that. We didn't come out to play, we didn't play together, we didn't execute, we didn't defend. I don't care if this game didn't count, this is an NBA game and we trying to have good habits and we didn't create good habits tonight. We didn't play well at all tonight, we didn't and we have to play better if we (are) talking about winning a championship. I don't care if this is one of the few last games of the season, we have to play better and that's everybody."
If he was hoping these words would have inspired everybody and the team would start rolling through opponents, he was wrong. They barely escaped the Sacramento Kings after allowing a 39-point fourth quarter and then they got absolutely drummed by the Los Angeles Clippers to the tune of a 29-point loss.
The common thread to these losses, and the team's overall play of late is, “nothing to see here, we're just getting ready for the playoffs.”
Since locking up the three-seed, they've had absolutely nothing left to play for, so they are working Anderson in back slowly and the team is giving players rest. Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams — and nearly the entire team in the second quarter against the Clippers — have all have sat during these past few games to try and rest their bodies.
We've all seen when the Rockets are able to turn it on, they can beat just about anyone. But could it be too late?
With only one game left for the Rockets, the absolute best-case scenario is going 5-5 during the team's final 10 games, and history is not on Houston’s side.
Going back 13 years, six teams have made the NBA Finals after going 5-5 or worse over their final 10 games and out of those six only the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers and 2005 Miami Heat won the NBA championship.
The 2005 Heat and the 2009 Lakers’ rough stretches before the end of the season was mainly due to players a resting right before the playoffs started up, and I am sure people had plenty of panic back in the day to about those teams as well.
The difference between those two teams and the Rockets is the Heat and the Lakers had much more talent.
The 2009 Lakers at the time had one of the greatest players in NBA history in Kobe Bryant and alongside him he had Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom and one of the most clutch players ever in Derek Fisher, not to mention Phil Jackson on the sideline
The 2005 Heat had a young Dwyane Wade and a still hungry Shaquille O'Neal who was still eager to prove the Lakers wrong who had bounced him out of town two seasons earlier.
For the Rockets, they have Harden and a whole bunch of shooters and dunkers that can take them far if they can get hot, but the Lakers and Heat just had more talent to lean on.
In a seven-game series, anything can happen, and at least the Rockets do hold wins over the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers as something that they can point to and show what they can accomplish.
As the playoffs start, they might be able to flip the switch and the December Rockets who played defense and rained threes down on their opponents to the tune of a 15-2 record might return.
But, as of right now, nobody is sure what the April Rockets are capable of.