|The Houston Rockets have lost seven straight games. (Getty Images)|
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Rockets were headed into Saturday night's matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, they had to be feeling pretty good about ending their six-game losing streak and correcting what had been wrong for the previous 11 days.
The Timberwolves were without Kevin Love (hand), Brandon Roy (knees), Chase Budinger (knee), Nikola Pekovic (quad), Alexey Shved (ankle), Malcolm Lee (knee and hip), and Dante Cunningham (sick). Ricky Rubio was still on a 28-minute restriction by team trainers as he recovers from his ACL injury in March. That's a pretty good rotation of missing players.
The Wolves were dressing only nine players and two of them were Chris Johnson and Mickael Gelabale, who had just been signed to 10-day contracts after the team waived Lazar Hayward to clear a roster spot and been granted a hardship exception by the NBA to add a 16th player to the roster with a 10-day deal. This was a game designed for the Rockets to get back on track.
What happened was an embarrassing 13-point loss that included Johnson and Gelabale outscoring the entire Rockets team 23-20 in the fourth quarter. I believe this is what it's like when a team hits rock bottom.
It would be easy to focus on the feel-good story of the Wolves in this game, but this is a Rockets team without much confidence right now and without any answers. That much was clear in the locker room after the game.
“I honestly have no answer," Rockets wing Chandler Parsons said. "We're not playing well at all. We're not playing good defense. We're not playing good offense. I don't think we're playing hard enough. I just don't feel like we're leaving it all out there.
"We've lost seven in a row; we can't get this attitude like everything's okay. We can't get complacent."
Going into their game against the New Orleans Hornets on Jan. 9, the Rockets were one of the surprise stories in the league. They were supposed to be a young team figuring out what they had with so many new pieces, including the newly acquired James Harden just days before the season started. Before this losing streak, they were 21-14, leading the NBA in points per game and pace and sitting sixth in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.
They've lost seven games in a row by an average margin of 9.1 points. They haven't been blown out most nights, but they're not able to close out games with any kind of confidence.
“Right now, we're just not firing on all cylinders at all," coach Kevin McHale said in the postgame scrum. "We're just struggling. We've got to work our way through it. It's not going to get better by itself. We haven't had much practice time together. Right now, we're not playing with any kind of confidence. We're not attacking and when we are attacking, we're not making the right play."
The little things like transition buckets, getting stops on the defensive end to ignite their transition game, and using a smothering attack of shooters to space the floor and James Harden to dominate his matchups with that space just aren't existent right now.
"We're not getting any easy baskets anymore," McHale explained. "We're not leading the league in scoring; we're not running hard. You know, we're so out of character right now. We have turnovers, guys are open and we're not hitting them. We're really in a funk. And we've got to get ourselves out of it. That's bottom line. And we will.”
Before this losing streak, the Rockets weren't stymying opposing offenses with their defense consistently. They were ranked 17th in the league in defensive rating and the primary mode of winning games was their pace and offense. However, they were good enough defensively to turn that defensive rating into a weapon with their seventh ranked offense and blistering pace (first in the NBA and 2.5 possessions over the second place Lakers).
During this streak, the Rockets' offensive efficiency has gone from 106 points per 100 possessions down to a meager 96.4. They've dropped 1.6 points per 100 possessions on offense just from these games and are down to ninth in the NBA. And their offense struggling does come from not getting stops on defense. Their defense is giving up 4.5 more points per 100 possessions during the streak.
"In the beginning of the season, our defense was our best offense," Chandler said. "When we got stops, we were able to go out in transition, move the ball, play unselfish and cut. We're not getting stops right now so we're not able to do what we do best.”
During the losing streak, the Rockets' transition game has suffered greatly. They score 1.16 points per transition possession, according to Synergy Sports, but they haven't been able to get out and run like they're designed to do. In the last seven games, Houston is scoring just 1.06 points per transition possession and it is averaging nearly four fewer transition attempts per game.
If you're slowing down their game, then they have to rely on much more halfcourt stuff against fresher defensive legs.
"I think everyone is trying to do the right thing," Houston point guard Jeremy Lin said after the latest loss. "I just think now we're definitely all trying to do the right thing; it's just not working for us right now. The defenses are reading our stuff and we're not getting the stops and the rebounds we need to get."
Defenses being clairvoyant with the Rockets' offensive schemes could explain the offensive funk and the struggles of Harden during this streak. It may be that as he goes, the team goes. He's averaging 22.3 points on 19.4 shots and making just 37.5 percent of his shots. He's also averaging five turnovers during this slump.
"I'm not playing to the best of my ability," Harden admitted. "I'm not making shots, not making plays. We're kind of in a fog right now. We've got to find a way to get out of this fog. We've been on the road a lot this month. That's probably one of the reasons. But we've got to find a way to get out of this fog.
"A lot of it falls on me. I've got to do a better job of making shots and making plays.”
Here is Harden's shot chart before the losing streak began:
|James Harden's shot chart before Jan. 9. (NBA.com)|
And here is Harden's shot chart during the losing streak:
|James Harden's shot chart since Jan. 9. (NBA.com)|
So how do the Rockets fix this?
This is the struggle with having a young team that gains certain expectations after a hot start. The Rockets have the third-youngest roster in the NBA, so it shouldn't be a huge surprise that a bad stretch has been extended longer than they would have liked. And perhaps it took the rock bottom feeling of losing to a team with barely enough healthy players and two guys on 10-day deals destroying them in the fourth quarter.
The attitude of this team has to change, though, from what some players have seen during this streak.
“Every time you lose, it should hurt," a frustrated Parsons said. "I can't speak for everybody but losing is the worst. There's nothing worst than that. You've got to hate losing more than you like winning. I just don't feel like that around here right now.”
The answers aren't entirely clear but sometimes it can just be a matter of playing better basketball as a collective. Get stops, get running and get buckets that Houston excelled at creating in the first 35 games of the season. That's supposed to be Houston Rockets basketball.
“This is where we're at," McHale said. "We can't worry about how we got here; we've just got to get out of here.”