What a difference six months makes for the Houston Rockets. In late May they were facing the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, by the start of November they were just trying to find an identity. The team’s shaky start to the season forced management to fire coach Kevin McHale after 11 games, and replace him with interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Headed into Sunday’s game against the Knicks in New York, the team was still just 2-3 under their interim coach, and hadn’t won consecutive games in 19 days.
The Rockets have shown improvement on the floor lately, however. Leading into the Knicks game the team was allowing 104.4 points per game since Bickerstaff took over, compared to 108.5 in the first 11 games (4-7) under McHale. They’re also out-rebounding opponents by 2.8 per game, but something intangible has been missing from the team’s play. The spark that propelled them last season.
Monday against the Knicks, the Rockets showed enough mental fortitude in coming back from a 15-point deficit, winning 116-111 in overtime, to think that the team may have found it’s groove again.
“The previous 15 games we were in a slump; [Sunday] we had some energy,” said James Harden, who finished with 26 points on an inefficient 10-for-28 shooting night.
The Rockets did not quit when the Knicks went up big and looked like they would run Houston out the building. The Rockets scrapped – they managed16 steals on the way to 23 New York turnovers, and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds. Houston’s bench, which had not scored above 25 points in their previous five games, contributed 35 against the Knicks led by Marcus Thornton’s 18 points.
“We got contributions from everybody,” Bickerstaff said. “Guys who might not have been playing extremely well or a lot came in and made plays, and it was a bunch of small plays. Marcus Thornton obviously makes shots, but he makes a helluva pass to Dwight for the lob in a moment when we needed it the most. Dwight sets a heck of a screen for Trevor Ariza and gets him a wide-open three. Those small plays are the plays that we made, and those plays make a difference.”
Bickerstaff added that “scrappy and gritty” needs to be the team’s identity moving forward this NBA season.
“Yeah, that’s who we should be,” said Bickerstaff. “That’s the makeup of our team; that’s our personality. We’ve got guys that are gritty, we’ve got guys that are fiery. When you play that way you always give yourself a chance.
“In the past we’ve relied on just making shots, and there are certain nights where shots don’t go [in], so we’re trying to develop an identity where, it might not be easy for us, but it’s gonna be even harder for you, and that’s the way we wanna be.”
Center Dwight Howard (14 points, 6 rebounds) said post game that the past two wins against Philadelphia, and now New York, could be the spark to get the team focused again.
“I think if we continue to trust each other, and play hard, and go through the process together, then we’ll get better,” said Howard. “We started out the season pretty bad, but what has happened has produced great character in our team. We’ve learned to really rely on each other. We’ll get better as the season goes, and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Rockets face just one team over the next five games with a record above .500 (Dallas), and Bickerstaff warned the team not to get too complacent with their current two-game winning streak.
“We’re kinda ticking the clock right now,” Bickerstaff said. “Things are turning in the right direction for us, but with us, we understand it is everyday. We can’t afford right now with the position we’re in to take any steps backwards. We can’t get too comfortable, too confident because we won a game.”
Feature image via: USATSI