HOUSTON (CBS Houston) — It took Rockets coach Kevin McHale all of just the first five minutes of the first scrimmage on December 9th to wonder if his new team had any chance at all.
The former Celtics great couldn’t believe his eyes as the assembled 10 players couldn’t run a play without knocking each other down. The conditioning, do primarily to the lockout, was so bad that after a minute-and-half McHale couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw every player bent over grabbing their shorts.
This is what he couldn’t live without?
“I thought `Oh my Lord, we may not win a game this year,” McHale said. “I wondered what 0-66 will look like?”
Nearly three months and 34 games later, McHale is no longer worried whether his new team is capable of winning games. The questions now are how many games can the Rockets win and could a playoff berth be at hand?
Most us never thought those would be issues this season on a team void of any All-Star caliber talent, but the Rockets are easily one of the biggest surprise teams in the NBA during the first half of the season. They won another grind-it-out game Wednesday night, escaping Philadelphia in the final two minutes for a 93-87 win at Toyota Center that puts the Rockets at an impressive 20-14 going into the All-Star break
The Rockets, who head into the break on a three-game winning streak which includes consecutive wins over playoff teams, aren’t going to win many beauty contests but their scrappiness and grit has them among the top six in the Western Conference and six games over .500.
Who seriously saw this coming before the season?
“Those guys have worked really hard and they’ve battled and I’m proud of them,” McHale said. “They are buying into the fact that sometimes we are just going to have win ugly.”
There really isn’t any way to define this team or put your finger on how it has been able to be so resilient during the first half of the season.
At times, the Rockets can be inconsistent, defensively challenged, lethargic and just flat out uninspired. But at some point they just seem to turn it on. It can come from a defensive stop or burst offensive explosiveness can from Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry or Luis Scola at any given point.
Case and point was Wednesday night’s game. After Martin contributed very little in the first three quarters, he came to life in the fourth with a couple key baskets and then Lowery took over in the final 1:57. Lowry converted two critical three-point plays and then took a big charge to seal a game in which the lead changed hands five times in the final five minutes.
That has been typical of these Rockets all season long. Just when you think they are out or when they have suffered a setback they always seem to find a way to climb back in it.
“Being tough and resilient,” Lowry said when asked what has defined the Rockets these first 34 games. “Every time we have a bad loss we bounce back and that’s what good teams do. We bounce back after any loss or any setback, we respond with enthusiasm and energy you need to have.”
And teams never know from where McHale is coming from. It’s likely his players don’t know, either.
McHale’s approach to finding the lineups that work the best has been mind-boggling at best. He plays small when the opposing lineup suggests you play big. He rarely uses the same exact lineup twice and there times when it seems he just flat forgets about players on his bench like Chase Budinger. To say that his lineups are all over the place is an understatement.
But somehow in the end it just seems to keep working out.
You wonder how long they can keep this up. But it seems like they just might, barring another radical trade attempt, because to a man each Rocket knows this team isn’t good enough to become complacent. They must keep improving following the All-Star break to have a remain in the playoff race.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Martin said. “We did what wanted to do in the first half of the year and now in the second half of the year we have to tighten up on some things and keep moving forward.”
That goes to show just how much this team has bought into what McHale has been selling all season: improve, improve, improve. Do that and things you didn’t think were possible can happen. But there are no promises, of course.
“The guys are starting to get better but we’ve got a long way to go yet. I’m proud of the guys,” McHale said. “I will be honest we went from a group that was really really hard for me to coach to a group I’m actually starting to enjoy a little bit.”