An­swers elu­sive as search con­tin­ues

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - By Jonathan Feigen

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.”

Rick Bowmer / As­so­ci­ated Press

Rock­ets coach Mike D'An­toni on the loss to the Jazz: “They just beat us in ev­ery which way they could.”

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