Road to Recovery
Where do the Rockets go from here?
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
The Rockets have pieces. They look unselfish and have a nice pace to their offense. They can run and get the most out of their guards—undersized as they may be. They rarely take possessions off, which is a double edged sword in that they are in many close games, yet too often don’t have enough left to close out down the stretch. It’s a frustrating aspect for a team that has talent, style, shooters and a little grit. While the McGrady-Yao era had ended and now the Yao Ming era is clearly over, the Rockets need to recover. At least they are not starting from scratch.
The Rockets probably achieved more success than they should have. In 2008-09, Tracy McGrady was limited to 35 games during the regular season and missed the entire playoffs. Yao Ming missed the final four games in the conference semifinals against the Lakers with a hairline fracture in his left foot. He would end up missing the entire 2009-10 season as well. Without both superstars, the Rockets still stretched the series to seven games—a hard fought, all for one series that served to remind everyone that even though the Rockets didn’t win, there are still 12 names on an active playoff roster—and sometimes you need every one of them.
Yao returned for five games this season before being ruled out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left ankle. It is familiar territory for the Rockets, only now they are finding the ability to win slightly more elusive. Forward Shane Battier says, “We’ve been pretty banged up this year, playing some young guys, trying to get them in the rotation and the Western Conference is a tough conference. It’s tough to win games out there. We’re trying to find something to get us on a roll and get back in this (playoff) race.”
While many guys have tried to fill the void—especially in the interior—Battier says it just isn’t that easy. “You don’t really make it up with one guy. It’s tough to replace an all-star, there’s not many of them in this league. You just have to play more together, you have to play harder, and know that your margin of error is much slimmer,” he says.
On the team’s resiliency, Battier says, “I think that’s the culture that we’ve created…we’ve had terrible health with Tracy and Yao and missing our superstars. We don’t make excuses; we just circle the wagons and try to play harder.”
The Rockets currently give up almost exactly as many points as they score. Asked if the lack of an inside presence is what’s most troubling, Head Coach Rick Adelman says, “That is exactly right…our center’s 6’6 and we don’t have a lot of shot blockers.”
Forward Luis Scola has been one of the bright spots in the front court, his game a combination of blue collar hustle and offensive finesse. When asked how the Rockets can improve their defense, Scola says, “I don’t know exactly how, but the truth is that we really need to improve it. If we want to be successful and we want to get somewhere, we can’t play the other teams trying to outscore them. We need to shut them down on defense, and that guarantee us that we’ll be in the game so we need to work on that.”
And just because the Rockets are in games, doesn’t mean they win games—a fact the entire locker room is painfully aware of. “I think we just need to become a little better executing team in the fourth quarter because we have been in a lot of games and just have lost at the very end. Our biggest thing I think is just executing down the stretch,” says forward Chase Budinger.
“When you get 10-15 points ahead in the scoreboard, you just have to have the game,” says Scola, “You can’t allow yourself to lose so many of those games throughout the year. We just need to learn from every loss we have and try to not commit the same mistakes over and over.”
Aaron Brooks, named Most Improved Player last season, says, “We can’t get complacent. I think when we get to the end of a game, you want to run down time and you’re not taking your shots. That’s what we want to do, get easy baskets, run our offense.”
While most teams can afford changing the tempo to preserve a lead, the Rockets aren’t built to slow down. “That’s what I’ve been preaching in every game that we’ve struggled in the fourth quarter, we get conservative,” says Battier, “We can’t afford to be conservative. We have to take early shots. We have to continue to attack. If that means pulling up for a ton of three pointers in the break, nursing a lead, so be it. That’s the way that we have to survive. When we get conservative and slow it down, we’re just not very good.”
The Rockets are a team whose identity is rooted in necessity. They rank high in three pointers attempted and assists, since both are products of an offense with few isolation and post options. Giving up a lot of points is attributed more to personnel than philosophy.
While the Rockets will need to make moves to recapture former playoff success, they have some core players that will enable the team to retool rather than rebuild. Kyle Lowry is one and his play while Brooks was injured and now alongside him has made Houston’s backcourt very formidable.
“My role is just to try and get everybody going, try and do things to make our team go, pick up the tempo and keep the tempo going, and just win games. Honestly I just do whatever it takes to win—I know it’s really cliché—but it’s really how I feel,” says Lowry.
While Yao’s absence affects the Rockets’ identity, Brooks doesn’t believe it defines it. He says, “We haven’t had Yao for two years now…I’m just being honest, with Yao kind of there and not there, the guys have been here enough to know how to play without Yao because even though we did have him in training camp, he only played so many minutes. So with that said, we know how to play without him. It’s just about going out there and doing it.”
So far the Rockets haven’t made excuses. And while the franchise seems to be between two chapters right now, it is finally time to turn the page.