HOUSTON — From the moment the Rockets hit the free agent jackpot with Dwight Howard last summer and put him in the lineup with James Harden, there were always going to be questions about how they would put it all together and how long it might take.
Those questions were not supposed to be about how hard they would try.
“[Expletive] effort out there on defense and on offense,” said Howard. “The ball stuck … We didn’t move it and we can’t win that way.”
Bumps in the road over the course of the long regular season are to be expected, but the Rockets have now run head-long into a boulder of indifference as a 97-88 home loss to the Suns Wednesday night came on the heels of a virtual no-show trip to Utah on Monday.
“It had nothing to do with us missing shots,” Howard said. “They just played harder than us…It had nothing to do with the offensive game. They just played hard.
“We know what we [have to] do. It’s gotta be important for guys to come out and play the same way every night.”
The Rockets were shorthanded without Chandler Parsons (sore back), Jeremy Lin (sprained right knee), Omer Asik (right thigh contusion) and Greg Smith (sprained right knee). But neither Howard or coach Kevin McHale, who kept the locker room closed for 20 minutes after the game, would accept that out.
“You still have to play,” McHale said. “I don’t care who’s not there. You just [have to] go play and we didn’t play the right way.
“We didn’t move the ball. We didn’t move our bodies. They got up on us and started denying passes. We didn’t go backdoor. We didn’t drive all the scenes. When we did drive, we took wild shots…We did not play very good and that’s the bottom line.”
VIDEO:Coach Kevin McHale discusses the Rockets’ loss to Phoenix
The team’s leading scorer Harden shot just 3-for-17, including 0-for-10 from behind the 3-point line and bailed out early from the locker room after speaking only to team employees.
The Rockets were uninspired from the opening tip and never seemed able — or willing — to match the Suns energy or aggression and it was the fact that it was a virtual repeat of nonchalance that carried over from the loss to the Jazz that bothered Howard, who scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
“We can’t give away games like this,” Howard said. “It will come back and bite us later on in the season. So we got to learn no matter how many guys we got out there, short-handed and all, we got to play the same way — play hard and play aggressive.
“It’s just [has to] be in you. You can’t coach it. You can’t draw up plays or anything like that. You just gotta have it.”
Howard would not reveal what the obviously distressed McHale told the team.
“We keep that between us,” said the All-Star center. “We know what we got to do. We don’t do it, we’re [going to] continue to lose.
“We got to learn when we’re down. We got to learn how to play when we got big leads. It’s something that we got to learn how to do. We got to get a good shot every time. Coming down and shooting quick shots is not always good, especially when you’re down. That gives a team like Phoenix an opportunity to run. That’s what they want to do. We played right into their hands tonight.”
It is only the second time this season that the Rockets have lost back-to-back games and, at 13-7, they are still the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. So it was less a blaring alarm bell than a humming undercurrent reminder that a wannabe playoff contender needs more than summertime signings and headlines to turn into the real thing.
“It happens,” Howard said. “I told you guys a couple weeks ago the season is up and down. You go on runs. You have those games where you miss and you lose a couple of games. But the biggest thing is coming back the next game with a better effort and if not, then we got to take an ‘L’ for us to learn.”