HOUSTON — Cross that off their bucket lists.
Now the Rockets know what it’s like to step into an empty elevator shaft. Or out of a moving jet. Or off the roof of a tall building.
The last time anything went over an edge this fast, it was an anvil that wound up landing on the head of Wile E. Coyote.
The rootin’ tootin’, fastest-shootin’ bunch in the NBA filled up the hoop for a season-high 73 points in the first half Wednesday night against the Thunder. Then scored 19 in the second half.
For the anomaly inclined, it was the largest point disparity (54) between halves in league history.
Ordinarily to see such a rapid reversal from feast to famine, one has to go out for double cheeseburgers with one of those bony supermodels.
In the end, what we have is a clear line of demarcation between an honest-to-goodness Western Conference title contender and a team that just likes to flex in front of the mirror.
After a middling 5-5 record since Russell Westbrook underwent another surgery on Dec. 27 — including five losses in the span of eight games and three in their last four — the Thunder may have been tempted to write another one off after Houston’s dozen first-half 3-pointers.
Instead, coach Scott Brooks took them to the movies at halftime, showing video replays of the horror show defense that led to almost every single one of those 3-pointers.
Some were from gaps in the defense. Some were the result of switches. Some were just lazy. But no matter what, the Thunder decided they’d had enough.
“Hell yeah, it was a statement win,” crowed Westbrook above the through that had gathered around Kevin Durant after his 36-point game.
The kind that said even without one of the twin engines to their offense, Thunder have the know-how, the wherewithal and the grit not to simply throw up their hands and write another one off as a bad night.
“We just stuck with it,” Durant said.
It was also a statement about the Rockets in the 41st game of a season that hasn’t seen much difference or overall improvement from the 11th, 21st or 31st.
When the Rockets are raining 3-pointers and using the gaps created to also attack the basket, as they did in the first half, they are virtually unbeatable. But when the shots stop falling – as they did in the second half — the Rockets can be unwatchable and don’t seem like a bunch that could navigate the marathon of a deep postseason run. Or even the first round of the playoffs.
It’s an act they’ve got memorized like the lines of a long-running Broadway play.
Coach Kevin McHale shakes his head and talks about the ball “sticking” in the offense and bemoaning the fact his team can’t play with consistent energy all game.
James Harden, the supposed closer who did not score a point in the second half, churlishly challenges the notion that anything at all went wrong except a couple of shots not falling.
Dwight Howard, after five-point second half, sits in front of his locker mumbling responses to questions, as if the whispering lets the outside world know that, by gosh, he’s taking this one seriously. That’s after another night of Howard reverting to form as the frustrated, stifled big man who can’t score and falls back into pushing, shoving and getting slapped with double technical fouls.
“We’ve got to play the right way if we want to win,” Howard said. “Once we figure it out, we’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t even a week ago when the Rockets blew a 25-point lead to the lowly Wizards, but had enough to fight back and win. The difference, of course, is that the thoroughly mediocre Wizards of the laughably horrid Eastern Conference are not in the same class as the Westbrook-less Thunder.
So while they have shown a propensity for often making a bunch of shots, the Rockets have not shown an inclination or an ability yet to reach for the next level of concentration and execution.
Whose fault is that? Howard’s? Harden’s? McHale’s?
“We’re good, Harden said. “We missed layups, a couple of errant turnovers that we could have converted in transition,” said Harden. “Just small things.”
Like that first step off the rooftop.