HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – This was the Rockets chance to make a statement and more important provide themselves some breathing room in what is sure to be a wild finish for the final Western Conference playoff spots.
The stage was set with back-to-back home games against two teams on their heels in the standings after a confidence boosting four-game winning streak on the road last week. But instead coming out this two-game swing feeling good, the Rockets are now serious pressure after inexplicable back-to-back home losses have now put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.
They followed up Wednesday’s disappointing defeat against the Utah Jazz with an even more troubling 112-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. Now the Rockets find themselves in an almost win-or-go home situation with back-to-back games against coming up against Denver – yet another team technically trailing them in the standings – beginning Sunday night on the road and them Monday back at Toyota Center.
The Rockets (32-27), who came into the week sixth in Western Conference standings, are now tied with the Nuggets (32-27) for the seventh seed with only a slim tie-breaker edge. That tie-breaker could swing the Nuggets way if the Rockets aren’t careful after relinquishing tie-breaker possibilities to both the Jazz and Suns this week.
“We’ve been talking about solidifying our home court and taking advantage of it, but these past two games we haven’t been doing that,” said center Marcus Camby, who was off to a blistering double-double start but only added two points to his stats in the second half to finish with 14 points and 18 rebounds. “We just keep making the situation tougher for ourselves. So we have to regroup tomorrow, head up to Denver and try to get both of those games.”
But the reality is the Rockets will be hard-pressed to do so. Splitting with Denver might be the best they can hope for and if they continue to shoot the ball the way they have the last two games even that is doubtful.
The Rockets followed up their horrific shooting night Wednesday (36 percent) with an equally horrific second-half showing against the Suns on Friday night. After leading 55-51 at halftime, the Rockets shot just 38 percent in the second half, which included a 14-point third quarter.
To make matters worse, the Rockets allowed their poor offense to affect their defense in the second half as Marcin Gortat did damage inside, while Steve Nash and Sebastian Telfair went to work on the perimeter. It wasn’t long before the Suns turned a four-point deficit into a 16-point advantage.
“They played harder and hit some shots and we got bogged down a little bit,” said Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry. “We didn’t play our temple, our game.”
As a result, the Rockets are no longer confidently in the driver’s seat to reach their playoff goals. They need to win and win big in these final seven games in which five teams are competing for the final three playoff spots in the West.
Phoenix and Utah are still on the outside of the playoff race, but another stumble by the Rockets and they will be trading places.
“We didn’t do it,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said when asked about his team’s missed chance to pad its playoff positioning these last two games. “Now we’ve got to go on the road and win a game. We had two games and we didn’t get it done and it’s very disappointing both times. We rallied late but we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Part of the problem is clearly shot selection, while another is just being void of a natural scorer. Kevin Martin is still out with a strained right shoulder and there is no end in sight to his month-long hiatus.
Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons and Luis Scola have all taken turns scoring the ball in Martin’s absence. But all four have been off these last two games in ways Martin rarely has been.
Against the Nuggets when the shots clearly weren’t falling, there was no one to take it to the rack. The Rockets have converted just 8 of 39 combined 3-point attempts these two games.
“We have to penetrate,” said Goran, who was 5 for 9 from the field and 1 for 4 from 3-point land but finished with 22 points after converting 11 of 11 from the free throw line. “We have to penetrate, kick out and then penetrate again. Go to the free throw line and get easy baskets. Three-point shots, some days they are going to fall and some day not, but we cannot rely on three-point shots. “
Because when the Rockets do and they don’t make them then they lose confidence as they did Friday night even though they did manage to make a little run in the waning moments.
“In the last two games we’ve missed some of our shots and that just seems to affect us a little bit,” McHale said. “Then in the fourth quarter we started putting our head back down and driving to the hoop and made stuff happen.”
Now the Rockets have put themselves in a position to make stuff happen on much grander scale with tough games remaining at Dallas on Wednesday night and then at Miami next Sunday. Making the playoffs just got a lot harder.
“A lot more pressure,” Lowry said when asked how much pressure does the latest losing streak put on the team down the stretch. “We still hold our own destiny but we’ve got to go out there and do our jobs and get wins.”