When the 2015 Houston Rockets completed an all-time comeback in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, the death-defying feat turned around the series and led to a substantial, tangible result.
Houston, you’re not in 2015 anymore.
It’s true that the 2016 Rockets recalled their 2015 escape from the clutches of the Los Angeles Clippers this past Thursday in Portland. However, unlike the 2015 team — which used “Game 6” as a springboard to the Western Conference Finals — this bunch of Rockets crashed to the ground immediately after doing something positive.
It’s been that kind of season in Houston. There’s a reason this team is outside the top eight in the West, offering little indication that it will salvage its campaign.
Like the drunken, philandering husband who promises his wife that he’ll change, restrains himself for a few weeks, but can’t control his urges for any length of time beyond that, the Rockets just can’t shake their worst instincts.
Monday night in Milwaukee against another disappointing NBA team, the Rockets played the same old games. They fell behind against the Bucks but then scrambled to make the game close with their extremely potent offense. They tried to piece together another Portland-style comeback, overcoming their matador defense with short bursts of particularly focused performance.
You can’t produce winning streaks that way, because you can’t produce winning habits that way.
The Rockets, caught in a cycle of familiar basketball sins, could not escape the Bucks. Much worse — and more central to this discussion — they couldn’t escape themselves. A 128-121 regulation-time loss to a Milwaukee team which averages under 100 points per game underscored everything that’s rotten about the Rockets.
New coach J.B. Bickerstaff hasn’t fixed what went south under Kevin McHale. James Harden isn’t rediscovering what it means to commit himself at the defensive end. Dwight Howard can’t solve a team’s crisis of soul.
It was bad enough on Saturday, when Houston’s first quarter following the win over Portland produced a meager 11 points. However, to be fair to the Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs do have a great defense. Getting shut down by the Spurs (57 points through three quarters in a 104-94 loss) is not evidence of a team in crisis.
Giving up 128 to a 99-point-per-game opponent? Yes.
Giving up 128 to a team floundering in the standings, 10 games under .500? Yes.
Houston and Milwaukee were like two ships passing through the dark night of NBA disappointment. That the Rockets disappointed themselves more than the Bucks did on the final night of February is, itself, an eloquent commentary on the misery which has visited Houston this season. The authors of this awful journey have only themselves to blame.
There was no Game 7 against the Clippers (at home) to retain the Rockets’ focus after their latest great escape. Another flight, another foe, and another hotel room created a very different follow-up for the 2016 Rockets compared to last May. A team which remained cohesive in that Game 7 more than nine months ago was able to carry one meaningful achievement into the next days of work and practice.
This team? It promptly discarded the value of its comeback against Portland. The Rockets wilted — on offense against the Spurs and at home, on defense and on the road against the Bucks.
It’s not as though the 2015 Rockets were the picture of stability and consistency, but by comparison, the 2016 team is orders of magnitude worse.
After Monday’s loss in Milwaukee, Houston wing Trevor Ariza offered the kind of quote which comes from losing locker rooms and failed organizations at this point in an NBA season:
“It’s frustrating. Very frustrating. We have to continue to remind ourselves every day that we have to do those things.”
If you have to remind yourselves what you need to do at this point in a season, rather than absorbing basic truths so that they’re part of your bones and marrow, you’re not much of a team.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2016 Houston Rockets.