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Mediocre Rockets show no signs of figuring things out

HOUSTON -- The man who has been put in charge of fixing this mess of a basketball team on the floor sat behind a microphone in the Toyota Center interview room looking flustered.

It seems J.B. Bickerstaff is doing everything possible, without trying to play himself or asking Calvin Murphy, Dikembo Mutombo, Clyde Drexler, Greg Buckner or Matt Bullard -- who were at Tuesday's game against the Atlanta Hawks working in various capacities -- to come out of retirement.

The reality is that the Rockets are mediocre, and no lead is secure in their hands. On Tuesday, they lost a 19-point first-half lead, bogging down offensively down the stretch in losing to the Hawks, 121-115.

It doesn't matter that the Hawks had played in Indianapolis the night before, losing to the Pacers. They could have played in Vancouver for all anybody cared, because the Rockets just aren't good enough, no matter what they say they have on paper and on the floor, to become a consistent team.

At the start of the season, the Rockets had the look of an elite team. Now, with a 16-17 record, they have the look of a floundering group holding onto the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

Sure, the rest of the conference behind Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City is suspect, but from what we've seen of this Rockets team, there is no reason to believe they will do any damage if they reach the postseason.

Rockets players can't explain why they've been so up and down this season.

"It's probably a common theme," Ty Lawson said. "I guess at times we do stop and hold the ball or just don't move it as much. We miss shots, and they get runouts to easier 3s and layups. Our offense creates bad defense for us."

Added Trevor Ariza: "It's pretty frustrating, but we've got to fight through it, and we have to continue to play and find ways to win down the stretch."

The Rockets dominated the Hawks in the first half, setting season highs in points (71) and field goal percentage (.692). Then the next 24 minutes started, and the Rockets team that had played with crisp ball movement and tight defense disappeared.

"I think we just should've stuck with the same game plan we had in the first half," Dwight Howard said. "We did a really good job at moving, playing fast. In the second half, we just kind of got lazy as a team, and you know we can't do that. We've got to get better."

Three plays down the stretch summed up the Rockets' second half, and perhaps their season.

After Kent Bazemore tied the score with a 3-pointer with 1:12 to play, James Harden had the ball in an isolation situation, something that he leads the league in. But Harden couldn't get free from Bazemore, and the Rockets were called for a shot-clock violation with 45 seconds left.

"I just really didn't see a lane," Harden said. "So I didn't feel like I could go, and then he did a good job of just hitting the ball, which knocked a couple of seconds off, and got a shot-clock violation."

Bickerstaff inserted Corey Brewer, a veteran forward who has played poorly this season, for defense. On a switch, Brewer moved over to cover Al Horford on the next possession but lost him, allowing Horford to score the go-ahead bucket with 33.4 seconds left. Bickerstaff said he wanted a taller defender on Horford.

And finally Paul Millsap blocked two shots within a two-second span: Ariza's and then Howard's with 11.6 seconds to play. All that was left after that was for Jeff Teague to close the show with two free throws, which he did.

The final box score will tell you the Rockets shot 54.2 percent from the floor and 55 percent from 3-point range. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Houston became the first team this season to shoot that well and lose a game.

The last team to pull a feat like this was Portland, which shot 58.2 percent from the field and 56.3 percent from 3-point range in a 112-102 loss to Utah in April 2013. But unlike the Rockets, who were ahead the majority of the game, Portland never led, trailing 7-0 at the start.

"We're all frustrated," Bickerstaff said. "Obviously, we're not getting the results that we would like to get. There wasn't a lack of effort. It wasn't a lack of trying. Guys did the right things. We just didn't make the plays when we needed to make the plays, and sometimes that's an offensive or defensive rebound. Sometimes it's a loose ball, those types of things."

It's always something with the Rockets, and as the season progresses one thing is pretty clear: More things need to change.