HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – More than 24 hours have gone by and the Rockets are still hard pressed to explain what went wrong during Wednesday night’s 103-91 loss to the Utah Jazz.
It could have been just sheer exhaustion after coming off a successful four-game road trip. It also could have been just a bad matchup with the Jazz wisely dropping powerful 6-foot-8 Paul Millsap into the small forward spot to create mismatches.
But more trouble is it could have been a precursor of what is to come as the Rockets fight to stay in playoff contention in the West and other teams attempt to maneuver into their spot.
“It’s hard to describe, we were just a half a step slow, a little stuck in the mud, had good shots that didn’t go in and that third quarter they really spread out on us,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Wednesday’s loss. “They scored 24 points in that quarter but probably could have scored 50.
“We had a hard time getting our offense going. It was one of those games. We’ve got to bounce back. We learn from it, get better and then we move forward.”
And move forward quickly and with little margin for error the Rockets must do as they continue a stretch of games Friday night against teams that are fighting for better playoff positioning or fighting to get into the top eight. Friday night’s opponent, the Phoenix Suns (30-28), come into Toyota Center sitting on the outside of the playoff race in 10th place but trail No.7 Houston (32-26) by just two games.
So even with eight games remaining in the regular season, this becomes essentially a playoff game for both teams because much is at stake. Not only can the Rockets not afford to drop a second straight game at home, they don’t want to relinquish the head-to-head tie-breaker with Phoenix, whom they hold 2-1 edge over going into Friday.
“We know how important this game is,” said Rockets center Marcus Camby. “It’s a tie-breaker situation. I think we are 2-1 against this team. Even though they lost (Wednesday night) to Memphis they are going to come in and put the same emphasis of importance on this game as we are.”
The Rockets might as well get used to it because they will come up against the same emphasis during back-to-back games against Denver on Sunday and Monday nights and then Wednesday night on the road at Dallas. Denver is holding on at the No.8 seed while Dallas is No. 6 with not a lot separating either of the teams.
The race among five teams for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference is so tight that its bound to come down to the last game of the regular-season before all playoff spots are figured out, which must all of the final eight games are must wins.
“It’s fun,” Camby said of the premature playoff atmosphere. “Honestly it reminds me of the NCAA Tournament in how important each game is going to be down the stretch.
“Every night is a big game and everyone is talking about it amongst my teammates, the media is talking about it and it makes everything fun. The only pressure we have right now is to prepare.”
Still there is no denying the Rockets can afford another off night like they had Wednesday against Utah.
At team below them in the standings came into Toyota Center and pretty much had their way with them. The Jazz, led by shooting guard Gordon Hayward and Millsap, blistered the Rockets inside and outside with the pick-and-roll working to perfection.
The Rockets, meanwhile, couldn’t get anything going offensively with Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee, Luis Scola and Chase Budinger all struggling from the field. The Jazz shot 51 percent from the field, compared to just 36 percent from the Rockets.
“It was one of those nights where they zagged, we zigged and when they zigged we zagged,” McHale said. “That happens. Some nights it’s as easy as falling out of bed, but (Wednesday night) was a hard game.
“I give Utah credit, when we made mistakes they made us pay for our mistakes. We made more mistakes than we normally do but we also paid more for our mistakes.”
The Rockets worst game in a month came on the heels of a four-game road swing in which they came back 4-0 with wins over NBA-leading Chicago, the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland. But they looked nothing like that team on Wednesday night.
The fear is that it was sign of the Rockets caving to the pressure of the intense playoff race. But the reality is it was likely just the case of a bad matchup much like struggling Minnesota has been for the Rockets this season.
“We hope so but we know we have to play a whole lot better, especially coming off a road trip like we just had,” Camby said. “Sometimes teams come back a little bit sluggish.
“I thought we got off to a good start but we had our lulls where we couldn’t score the basketball, lapses on the defensive end and then our inability in transition defense.”