Answers elusive as search continues
The Rockets were stunned yet again and, even after so many similar stumbles, they still could not believe it was continuing to happen. The excellence that had been theirs was gone. The aspirations they once held were further removed by another rout.
The Utah Jazz rolled over the Rockets 118-91 at Salt Lake City on Thursday night, building their lead to as many as 37 points before the Rockets threw in the towel and cleared their bench for the entire fourth quarter.
The Rockets again were overwhelmed, unable to match the intensity and determination of a Utah team that lost Rudy Gobert, its defensive anchor, to a quick ejection.
“They just beat us in every which way they could,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’re obviously searching for answers, and we haven’t found them yet. We’ll keep searching.”
At this stage of the season, the search appears to point to an inability to understand what caused the team’s slide to an 11-13 record. The Rockets know what needs to improve — they need to defend more effectively, rebound better and take care of the ball more reliably. But why that improvement remains so hard to attain has stumped players and coaches.
“Not sure. It doesn’t matter,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said when asked if the disappointment of being 11-13 is affecting how the team plays. “In this league, it doesn’t matter. You get frustrated. You get down. The next game is coming no matter what. You have to get ready. You have to prepare. You have to do the things you talked about doing.
“We have to do what we got to do to be who we want to be. Everybody talks about last year and all that stuff. None of that matters. Right now, what we got going on right now, with the situation with us, until we fix it, we’ll stay in this situation.”
Tucker and his teammates have been insistent since training camp that the Rockets could not lean on the success of last season. D’Antoni was concerned enough to make that the point of his first address to the team that it simply could not pick up where it left off but had to rebuild to again attain that standard. Yet, the Rockets appear to be burdened by the success they once enjoyed.
At about this same point last season, the Rockets left Utah with a 21-point victory and a 19-4 record that would swell to 24-4 before they would lose another game. They did not reach 13 losses until Jan. 26 and followed that defeat with a 17-game winning streak. Unless they can complete their road trip with a victory at Dallas on Saturday, the Rockets will have as many losses as they had in mid-March a season ago.
The sweet memory of that success, too recent to be forgotten, now taunts the Rockets.
“We’re not worried,” guard James Harden said. “We can’t dwell on last year. We just have to focus on this year, and each game, each day getting better, because honestly, we had a completely different roster. We focus on what we have to do to improve every game, and things aren’t always going to go great. Sometimes they’re going to go great, but you just stay the course and stay locked in.”
That has been an issue in recent games when the Rockets have had good stretches but have not been able to take a punch. From a 29-point second half in a 103-91 loss at Minneapolis on Monday night to the 11point third quarter at Salt Lake City on Thursday night, the Rockets have scored 85 points in a span of five quarters.
They have the sixthranked offense in the league (No. 1 in the 13 games since offensive breakdowns at Oklahoma City and San Antonio). Yet, they wilted under pressure in the last two games.
The rout by the Jazz appeared to show what was lacking.
“We’ve got to play for one another, we’ve got to sacrifice for one another,” guard Eric Gordon said. “That’s where we’ve got to start off first and build off from there. We have a talented team. We can turn this thing around for sure. It’s all on us players to sacrifice for one another.
“We have to do whatever it takes to win the game. Give up a good shot to get a great shot. All the little things. We’ve just got to be locked in and just (play) a lot better.”
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni on the loss to the Jazz: “They just beat us in every which way they could.”