HOUSTON – There are nights when the 3-point shots rain down like the quenching drops from a summer thunderstorm, when the pace of the game is faster than a car chase in an action movie and everything is right in the Rockets’ world.
Then there are the others.
A 10-point lead to start the fourth quarter in New Orleans vanished like a drunk’s wallet on Bourbon Street. Down by two with seven minutes left to play in Boston, they lost. Down by three entering the final 4 1/2 minutes in Philly, they lost. Then a one-point halftime lead at home turns into a bag of hammers that falls on their heads in a beat-down by the Clippers.
A season-high five-game winning streak is followed by a four-game losing streak and the NBA’s version of a treadmill has taken them exactly where?
The Rockets are young and fast, young and entertaining, young and unpredictable, young and lethal, young and inconsistent. Did I mention young?
The Rockets have less experience than any team in the league. They’re like toddlers carrying around scissors — you’re never sure who’s going to get hurt.
“First of all, in an NBA season, if you have all veterans and you have 10 years of experience, you’re going to have slides,” coach Kevin McHale told reporters after the loss in Philly.
“That’s no excuse for it. We still have to do what we have to do. I’ve said it all along. Our guys are getting closer to understanding how we have to play and taking ownership of how we have to play.
“But then we’ll backslide and get into how they want to play. I think it will be a constant all year, just trying to get everybody on the same page.”
Perhaps no team in the league changed its DNA so dramatically and so swiftly as the Rockets, who pulled off the stunning trade to bring in James Harden from Oklahoma City just four days before the season opener.
Suddenly a franchise that had been in the limbo of having the best record in the draft lottery for three straight seasons since the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming era ended with an implosion of bad knees and broken feet, had a bonafide star in Harden, a foundational player, to use the phrase of general manager Daryl Morey, upon which to build.
Harden has been all that and more, after barely unpacking his suitcase before dropping 45 and 37 points in the first two games of the season and since then tucking in among Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and LeBron James as one of the top five scorers in the game.
Harden is the big-time star that Morey has been chasing with his home-run swing for years and is not only an anchor for the future, but the magnet that the GM believes will draw more. While the Lakers can offer him the most money and the “Bank of Cuban” has been declared open for business in Dallas, Morey is of the opinion that he’ll have at least a puncher’s chance to get Dwight Howard to return his phone calls next summer.
Whether he lands the All-Star or not, Morey will go into the offseason knowing that he’ll have the salary cap space to land a max level player or divide that money up among a couple of others. While point guard Jeremy Lin still rides up and down the bumps in his first season as a full-time point guard running a team, fellow free agent signee Omer Asik has become a virtual double-double machine and undeniable success in the middle.
But for all the scoring outbursts and attention that Harden has brought to Houston, for now The Beard is more of a comb-over for lineup with plenty of bald spots. Though they play at the fastest offensive pace in the league, the Rockets don’t regularly combine smart with swift. And too often they try to substitute their own pace for playing defense. Their offensive rating is ninth in the league and their defensive rating just 17th.
In the past three games the Rockets have allowed their opponents to shoot 51.6 percent from the field and given up an average of 109 points.
Not many in Houston are complaining because their up-tempo style is fun to watch and Harden can be transcendent. Yet in terms of wins and losses, not much has changed. A year ago, at a similar point in a 66-game schedule, they were 17-14 (.548). Now the Rockets are 21-18 (.538) with a four-game road trip beginning in Dallas and a return to the playoffs could still be an uphill climb.
Right now, the Rockets are young and dangerous every night. The question is to whom?