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Failure to Launch: Inside the Rockets’ 13-game losing streak

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How the Houston Rockets went from a Cinderella story to basketball purgatory in a span of 29 days.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Houston Rockets Photo by Troy Fields/NBAE via Getty Images

John Wall wasn’t even scheduled to play. All season long, the Houston Rockets have been cautious with Wall while he worked his way back from a two-year hiatus. The plan was simple: No back-to-back games. And he only exceeded beyond 35 minutes in seven out of his 25 games played thus far.

But preparations for Monday’s contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers were anything but simple.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Houston sustained their second-worst loss in franchise history with a 49-point defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies. After scoring only 14 points on the night, Wall deemed the team and his performance “a**.” But the beauty of the NBA doesn’t give a team nor it's players time to deject themselves after an embarrassing loss.

Inside the confines of the Toyota Center, Wall went against the team’s wishes to appear in his first back-to-back game since the 2017-18 season. Wall was adamant about playing, telling first-year head coach Stephen Silas he did not care what anybody said. By the end of the final buzzer, Wall put on a heroic effort for the Rockets. He scored a then season-high 32 points (11-24 FG, 9-12 FT) while playing 40 out of a possible 48 minutes on the floor.

Unfortunately, Wall’s valiant play did not result in a win for Houston. The short-handed Rockets suffered their 12th consecutive loss in a 101-90 defeat to the Cavaliers. A losing streak that has since increased to 13 after a 132-114 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday.

“I love to play the game of basketball, and I am a very competitive guy. I know how much hard work I’ve put into my body to come back from these injuries when people thought I would never be the same. My main job — no matter if we are on a losing streak or not — is to be here for these guys. That’s what I wanted to do tonight and put [everything] on the line.” — Wall

February 4 marked the last time the Rockets won a game. At the time, Houston was on the verge of a Cinderella season. They had posted an 8-4 record following the jettison of James Harden. They had won seven out of their previous eight games — which included a six-game win streak. But more importantly, they sat eighth in the Western Conference, one game above .500 (11-10) for the first time all season.

The most vital element in the Rockets’ early-season success was the availability of their players. Given injuries, trades and COVID-19 issues, the eight games prior to Houston’s losing streak marked the only time this season nearly everyone on the roster was available to play.

That all changed midway through the third quarter of Houston’s road victory against the Grizzlies.

Christian Wood, Houston’s leading scorer averaging 22.0 points, rolled his right ankle after stepping on the foot of Ja Morant— leaving the game in a wheelchair. And since Wood’s injury, it appears that a great plague has cast over the Rockets organization with Eric Gordon, Victor Oladipo and P.J. Tucker all missing time due to injuries. Against the Cavs, Danuel House and David Nwaba added their names to the growing list of wounded Rockets. Houston has since used 11 different starting lineups throughout their 13-game skid.

“That is part of it for sure. We are going through it right now with guys in and out of the lineup. But I am not dissolving myself of responsibility. When we are whole as a group, I feel we are pretty good. But we haven’t been whole for a very long time. It’s a tough deal. But as my dad would call the NBA ‘No Boys Allowed.’ And he is right about that.” — Silas

Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The inconsistency of healthy bodies has disrupted the progress of the Rockets’ on-court camaraderie. It has forced Silas to use lineups and playstyles that are not fond to a number of his players. Since Wood’s 13-game absence, Silas has relied heavily upon small-ball. His adjustment did not sit well with Wall, who admitted it’s difficult playing without a big who can roll and finish at the rim.

During a post-game press conference via Zoom, Oladipo described small-ball as “an adjustment.” But his entire tenure so far in Houston has been nothing but struggling to adjust. Oladipo has tried to find his niche. But it’s been a constant battle when he is presented with a new challenge. Each night it’s something different for Oladipo. Every night, a player goes down with an injury or someone is hurt — including himself.

It’s a small sample size, but the basketball purgatory that has risen in Houston may not have happened if everyone was injury-free.

During their six-game win streak, the Rockets were one of the best offensive teams in the league. They averaged 118.2 points per game while shooting 39.6 percent from deep while recording an offensive rating of 115.3 — placing right outside the league’s top-10. But their most impressive play took place on defense. Houston had possessed the league’s best defense, holding their opponents to 102.8 points while recording a defensive rating of 100.2.

Amid their 13 game losing streak, Houston has plummeted to the bottom of the league. They have averaged a league-worst 101.6 points on 28.5 percent shooting on three-point field goals while registering an offensive rating of 100.8. On defense, the Rockets are giving up 119.3 points to their opponents with a defensive net rating of 117.5.

“It’s just difficult, to be honest. I am a person who likes to pass. I am used to finding my bigs on the roll. It just makes our team more dynamic. When we have all smalls out there, it’s tough because they are just switching one through five. We definitely need some kind of presence in the paint. With any team, you need to have that. And that’s where I feel we have struggled. We are doing the best we could to fight and battle for rebounds. And it’s a lot harder when you don’t have a seven-foot guy out there.” — Wall

The Rockets now enter the All-Star break on their second-longest losing streak in franchise history with an 11-23 record. Upon their return, the team may look drastically different with rumors that several veterans could be on the move ahead of the March 25 trade deadline. And depending on what they get back in return, the Rockets may accumulate a bit more losses in the loss column before the season concludes in May.

However, the number of losses the Rockets have recorded — and will record — could be beneficial in the long run. If they find themselves in the lottery, the Rockets will have an opportunity to select one of the draft’s most desirable prospects should their selection fall within the top four picks.

But when the season resumes against the Sacramento Kings on Thursday, Silas will not be concerned with the Rockets’ projected draft pick. Instead, he will be expecting to have a near-healthy squad on the floor of the Golden 1 Center executing his improved coaching philosophy after spending the break studying film. Hoping the night will end in celebrating a victory after failing 13 consecutive times.

“When we get back and we are healthy, in a position where will have enough guys to compete, we are going to be just fine. Once we get healthy, we’re gonna be good. I believe that.” — Silas