Rockets fall to ninth in West after dismal fourth quarter versus Bulls

HOUSTON -- J.B. Bickerstaff walked into the interview room on Thursday night after what he called a “pointed” chat with his team about another missed opportunity and sighed when sitting down.

The Houston Rockets' interim coach is trying. Bickerstaff and his assistant coaches can do only so much.

The front office can’t play for Bickerstaff, either, and GM Daryl Morey was patting Bickerstaff on the back as he walked toward his office after his media session as if to say "I understand your frustration." Bickerstaff left another media discussion about the Rockets losing a game they should have won.

Chicago rallied from 14 points down to defeat Houston 103-100 at the Toyota Center. The loss moved Houston from a three-way tie for the seventh seed in the Western Conference to ninth place with six games remaining in the season.

“I think our problem has been maintaining what works,” Bickerstaff said. “We can call it prosperity, we haven’t had enough prosperity. We’ve done things that have worked and at times we get away from those things. That’s what this league is about, this league is about consistency and the approach, consistency in performance, the consistency in the belief of your system and consistency in willingness to work at it.”

The Rockets can be such a wonderful yet frustrating team to watch. In the third quarter, the Rockets went on a 21-7 run to take a 73-59 lead. During the run, James Harden shook Mike Dunleavy with a nasty crossover in the frontcourt and drove to the basket, drawing a foul on a one-handed dunk over Pau Gasol, causing the crowd to go bonkers. After he made the foul shot, the Rockets led 61-52, and the run was on.

When you see the Rockets move the ball and defend and get rebounds, it allows you to understand why Morey told ESPN.com on Thursday afternoon he believes his team can make a run in the postseason.

But in the fourth quarter, the Rockets scored just 20 points with six coming in a frantic five-second stretch as the team lost its lead and had to scrap back to make the final score respectable.

A Trevor Ariza missed 3-pointer with three-tenths of a second left ended the evening for the Rockets, sending them home two games under .500.

Houston played so well for three quarters that when the fourth quarter ended, it was like another team had left the floor. Houston made just 6 of 21 shots from the field and had just eight total rebounds, while the Bulls had 11 defensive rebounds. Houston went nearly 4½ minutes between field goals, missing five shots during that stretch.

“Shots weren’t falling and we stopped setting screens, we stopped moving,” Harden said. “Those things right there is tough to score for any offense.”

Bickerstaff went with a smaller lineup, sitting Dwight Howard late, for quickness, more shooters and to prevent the Bulls from employing Hack-A-Dwight to bog down the game. Howard clearly wasn’t happy with sitting, but understood he’s here for defense.

“I hate losing,” Howard said. “I felt that we had the game. Our defense was great, but there in the fourth quarter it wasn’t what we need it to be. We can’t have lapses like that. It’s a bad loss.”

The perplexing way the Rockets play leaves so many questions. In the morning, Jason Terry said the shootaround was one of the best of the season. Bickerstaff noted how everyone was involved and asking questions, hoping it would transfer into the game.

And it seemed the Rockets had a boost after rallying from a 20-point deficit on Tuesday night in defeating Cleveland. So after a big win in Cleveland and a fantastic shootaround, beating the Bulls seemed logical.

It was a team feeling good. Now it’s a team continuing to raise questions about whether it can avoid being embarrassed by not reaching the postseason.

This Sunday afternoon, the Rockets face the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team it can compete with in the postseason. To reach the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, the Rockets must get to the sixth seed, but they’re 2½ games behind Portland with a handful of games left.

Things don’t look good for securing the sixth seed and the inconsistent nature of the team gives the Rockets hope for only a No. 8 seed.

“They realize it,” Bickerstaff said. “It hurts them. The opportunities are there in front of us -- we have to take advantage of the opportunities. This was a team that we had on the ropes. They put in their second-unit guys, and their second-unit guys gave them a huge spark.”