Breakdowns and inconsistency limit the Rockets in loss to Spurs

HOUSTON -- The reality of the start of the second half of the Houston Rockets' season is that despite the efforts of the front office and coaching staff, this group remains inconsistent and hasn’t proven that it’s better than the eighth seed in the West.

Houston was never really in Saturday's 104-94 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a loss that wasn’t nearly as close as that final score indicated. The Spurs’ lead reached as high as 31 points, and the Rockets never led at any point during the game.

Missing 10 of their first 11 shots hurt the Rockets, but it wasn’t as if the Rockets missed contested shots -- open looks simply didn’t fall.

The defense, something the Rockets relied on to rally from a 21-point deficit to defeat Portland on Thursday, wasn’t around for 48 minutes.

If the Rockets are going to do anything this season, then a consistent defensive effort in every game is paramount.

“I thought we played better after the first quarter,” Dwight Howard said. “We got to put together some good runs on the defensive end from the beginning of the game. Tonight we started out, they got a big lead and they never looked back.”

The best thing we have from this Rockets team in the second half is a victory over the pitiful Phoenix Suns and the Portland comeback, one of the best victories of the season. There was also the a gut-wrenching overtime loss at Utah, which veteran guard Jason Terry said was one of the toughest losses of the season, and now this performance against a Spurs team about to come home after its annual Rodeo trip.

“Things will improve,” the Rockets repeat over and over.

“We’re capable of anything,” Josh Smith said. “We just got to be able to stay positive and stay with the process.”

“We have to play harder, we have to play together and we have to play the right way,” Corey Brewer said.

Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff is forced to play James Harden heavy minutes to make this process work. Harden once again played more than 40 minutes, scoring 27 points in 41 minutes Saturday.

Harden continues to have confidence that the team will move forward, but you have to wonder if the team’s inconsistency is wearing on him.

“We got our shots, we just didn’t knock them down,” he said. “We played with some aggressiveness in the second half, but it was a bit too little, too late.”

Bickerstaff’s rotation consists of seven players -- the five starters and veterans Terry and Brewer off the bench. Terrence Jones, whom the Rockets continue to value highly publicly, was on the floor for two minutes. Ty Lawson, the third-highest-paid player on the team with a $12.4 million salary, played just five. Good value there -- no wonder there are discussions about Lawson being released.

K.J. McDaniels, whom the Rockets signed to a three-year, $10 million deal in the offseason, remains a D-League staple.

Donatas Motiejunas is now healthy enough to play following several examinations on his back within the last week after a failed trade with the Pistons. Motiejunas said doctors told him he can play up to 30 minutes but played close to nine Saturday.

Performance is what dictates playing time for Bickerstaff. He can’t afford to play people who struggle considering the Rockets’ delicate status at the bottom of the playoff standings.

Bickerstaff deserves better than a 4-for-11 night from Howard, which included five missed shots from the restricted area.

Smith is another story. Smith is shooting a dismal 22 percent since the All-Star break, including 11 missed 3-point field goals in 13 attempts. Smith said he’s still confident in his shot, but it’s just not falling.

Trevor Ariza struggled as well on Saturday, going 3-for-8 from the field to finish with just eight points. We’ve seen Ariza contribute well on a nightly basis, so one bad night shouldn’t carry over.

Even with all that said, it’s defensive effort and execution that ail the Rockets the most.

“I think that we’re doing more talking on the defensive end,” Howard said. “We are talking as a group more. I don’t think the score of the game shows the positive atmosphere that we have had around here since the All-Star break.”

The players might be happy to be around each other, but that joy isn't currently translating into victories.