Gut check time

"It's just one game", but the Rockets need it

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Mike D'Antoni came out to speak with media at 11:51 a.m. on Friday, over thirty minutes after he was scheduled to do so before the Rockets' practiced. The team typically watches film and goes over things before speaking to the media and it's not uncommon for D'Antoni to arrive a little after his scheduled scrum. However, much like after Houston's loss to the Trail Blazers, this was an unusually long amount of time for the team to congregate.

"You got something to do?" D'Antoni joked to Houston Chronicle reporter Jonathan Feigen who asked the natural question. "We had a lot to cover, yes."

The Rockets have lost 3 out of their last 4 games and 2 of those losses have come against teams with an under .500 record. They've been a -2.9 per 100 possessions (18th in the league) in that span. To say that they've been spiraling as of late would be an understatement.

"I'm not a big believer in [team meetings]," said D'Antoni. "We just got to play hard, go at it, and attack them. We've just been a little lackluster in the last few outings and we have to get away from it."

While the Rockets have been careful to avoid the phrase 'team meeting' over the past few days, they've had their share of them. After they lost to Portland, Russell Westbrook led a spirited discussion post-game and before practice in the film room they had another long discussion.

Nonetheless, the Rockets have some real problems that need sorting. Teams go through rough spells and adversity, but for Houston to get where they want to be, they need to establish a certain level of consistency that they just haven't exhibited yet. Through the doldrums of an NBA regular season, it's hard to gather the motivation to be this consistent. Fortunately for Houston, a high-profile victory against the Los Angeles Lakers can theoretically jump start things for them.

"I mean, it's a big game," admitted D'Antoni. "It'll all mean a lot. It's an early test and we'll see if we can pass it. Does it mean more than anything else? Not really, not in the scheme of things. You got to take it into perspective."

Teams rarely admit that high-profile, national TV matchups like this mean more to them than any other game, but it's only natural that they do. Players and coaches have to admit that this game doesn't mean any more than the other 81 even though neither fans nor media ever buy charade.

"It's just one game," said Harden predictably.

The Lakers in particular have proven that they are the true best team in the Western Conference (33-8 with a +8.0 net rating) through the halfway point of the season. Their length also provide an interesting challenge for the Rockets - a team that's been undersized since the season tipped off in October. Houston will try and counter this by playing a traditional big on the floor at all times, never going small as their known to do.

Houston will carry on with the lineup that they've rolled out the past few games, starting Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. Against the Lakers, the interesting question here becomes, who guards the other big?

According to D'Antoni, that'll be James Harden. Harden guarding bigs isn't new for the Rockets as they've had to resort to it before, but it's come mostly for spurts. Against the Lakers, Harden will be defending a big for the entirety of the game. Tucker will continue with his expected assignment of guarding LeBron James and shadowing all of his minutes.

It's the first time both of these teams in their current iterations will face each other so there are a lot of fascinating subplots here. Teams with this kind of length have historically decided to funnel Harden to their rim protector. The current Bucks and Jazz are great examples of this. Harden's been in a bit of a funk lately and having to drive through Danny Green only to have to meet Anthony Davis at the rim is a tough ask, but he's up for it.

"I'm assuming their rim protection is really great," said Harden. "They do a good job of contesting shots with their length and they have some pretty good guards that are guarding."

Clint Capela has relished the opportunity to go up against Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, and other great centers in the past, but he doesn't view this matchup the same way..

"It's different," said Capela. "Tomorrow it's more about the whole team that I'm excited about [facing]."

Regular season basketball games don't carry the same kind of weight as they do in a sport like football, but this matchup will certainly tell us a lot about the state of the team.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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