The team had but a single game to play before the all-star break, but on Tuesday night, the Rockets looked broken already.
The Miami Heat took over the game early, building a double-digit lead in the first quarter, and never looked back. The Rockets could muster nothing offensively, making only 26 field goals on the night for a dismal shooting percentage of 30 percent. The game snapped the Heat’s five-game losing streak, their dominant performance summed up emphatically by Dwayne Wade’s vicious posterization of Luis Scola on a fast break in the 3rd quarter.
The Rockets have struggled on the court since the beginning of the year, but Tuesday’s embarrassment may prove to be the season’s nadir. Houston matched a franchise low by scoring only 66 points in 48 minutes. After a strong start to the season, the squad heads into the break facing many questions. Why are the Rockets losing? Here are five reasons why that Rockets fans must hope are addressed as the team fights to stay in the second-half playoff picture:
1. The Rockets are shorthanded
The most obvious reason for the Rockets’ struggles on Tuesday was the absence of two key contributors, starting forward Trevor Ariza and backup point guard Kyle Lowry. Ariza sustained a left hip pointer in a game last week, and Lowry rolled his ankle badly. Both will likely remain out when the Rockets’ season resumes next week. The Rockets weren’t able to generate any semblance of a fast break minus those two on Tuesday, and the team’s defense and rebounding suffered, as well. Those struggles are likely to continue until Ariza and Lowry return to the lineup.
2. The Rockets have been scouted
When the Rockets were turning heads early in the season, they may have been sneaking up a bit on teams expecting to face a pushover. With brisk ball movement, timely shooting, and the emergence of Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry as the squad’s primary offensive weapons, the Rockets regularly scored over 100 points in games. The Rockets’ offense has not been nearly so effective of late. Opponents have managed to stymie Brooks using a soft zone and collapsing on drives, forcing the Rockets to live or die by their outside shooting. Teams have also begun to double team Landry and deny him the ball using the same fronting defense that Yao Ming struggled against in 2009. The Rockets must find a way to punish these gimmicky tactics if they are to make a serious playoff push.
3. The Rockets face uncertainty at the trade deadline
The 2010 NBA trade deadline is February 19. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has been more than active in finding a trading partner for Tracy McGrady’s gargantuan expiring contract. ESPN has reported that Morey has discussed possible deals with Philadelphia and Washington, but both teams want the Rockets to throw in some of their young talent to sweeten any trade. Morey has publicly stated that he is opposed to moving rotation players if he can avoid it, but the stress of wondering who might be traded away before the 19th appears to be wearing on the Rockets. The team has looked frazzled and sluggish in the new year. Will Morey include a player such as Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, or Shane Battier in a deadline deal? Or will the Rockets simply let McGrady’s contract expire? Fans can only that whatever happens, the stability of knowing where they will play out the rest of the year will boost the team’s confidence and resolve.
4. The Rockets are simply fatigued
Houston raised eyebrows around the NBA with their strong play early in the season, often outworking opponents with a never-say-die flair. As the games have piled up, however, the Rockets have visibly worn down. The team’s trio of power forwards—Scola, Landry, and Chuck Hayes—have fought hard against bigger players all year, and their energy level has dipped noticeably of late. Players such as Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, and Aaron Brooks have been forced to play big minutes, and the miles logged are starting to show. Rookie Chase Budinger appears to have hit a wall. With injuries and the team’s brutal first-half schedule taking a serious toll on the team’s play, the all-star break couldn’t come at a more opportune time for the Rockets. Significantly, the entire team will have a chance to rest…
5. The Rockets have no all-stars
…because not a one of them is scheduled to participate in any of the events during all-star weekend. Not in the rookie/sophomore game. Not in the three-point shooting contest. Not in the all-star game itself. While a couple of Rockets, most notably Aaron Brooks, could have credibly been selected to play, no one on Houston’s roster has played impressively enough to demand inclusion. McGrady and Yao Ming, the Rockets’ perennial all-stars, are obviously not part of the team’s active roster. Nearly every night, the Rockets are at a talent disadvantage. It will be up to Daryl Morey to acquire all-star talent by trade if possible. Otherwise, the Rockets will have to take their chances in free-agency and the draft. Until such time, the Rockets have little choice but to forge ahead with the players they have.
Despite these obstacles and more, the Rockets have still put together a nice first half to the season. Experts predicting that the Rockets would enter the break above .500 were few and far between in November. Though the team is struggling, all is not lost. A week’s worth of rest should allow Houston to recuperate, regroup, and refocus as the second half begins. A potential deadline deal bringing a scoring wing such as Andre Igoudala or Caron Butler to Clutch City could also improve the team’s fortunes considerably.
Perhaps as a sign that the team will turn over a new leaf, Fox Sports’ Kevin Eschenfelder reported Tuesday that Shane Battier has pledged to shed his mustache over the break. The Rockets will need to lose the other ugly aspects of their game this week if they’re to regain their competitive form.