HOUSTON — Coach Mike D’Antoni started to make an excuse for the Houston Rockets‘ recent struggles and then stopped in the middle of a sentence, saying he couldn’t do it with a straight face.
The Rockets have dropped three of their past four games after a 117-107 loss Wednesday to the Portland Trail Blazers at the Toyota Center. D’Antoni acknowledged that the “collective spirit” of the Rockets, who consider themselves contenders, was off.
“No, it’s a concern, but to me, the focus is not on getting it right,” D’Antoni said. “The focus is more on looking at the back of the jersey instead of the front. We just need to get over it, and we will.
“Every ship gets rocked sometimes. We’re getting rocked right now. Two weeks ago, if you would have asked, we were in a great place team-wise. It’s that delicate of a thing. You’ve got to be careful, and right now, we’re shaky, but we have veterans that will right the ship up.”
D’Antoni took more than 20 minutes from the final buzzer to begin his postgame news conference, the longest wait this season, in part because of a lengthy discussion of the team’s issues in the locker room. Rockets star James Harden described the session as an opportunity for players to express their emotions and concerns.
“Everybody’s their own person and feels some type of way about whatever’s going on, individually and as a unit,” said Harden, who was held to a season-low 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting by the Trail Blazers, who double-teamed the NBA’s scoring leader on a regular basis. “So you speak about it and get it off your chest.”
The Rockets’ rut over the past week — which included double-digit losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Trail Blazers — has dropped Houston to fifth in the Western Conference standings. Harden summed up the solution in two words: “Play harder,” which was echoed by his co-star Russell Westbrook.
“Simple as that: Play hard,” said Westbrook, who had 31 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in the loss and was the only Houston player with a positive plus-minus. “Everything else will fall in line. Enough talent, enough experience, know how to play the game. Just got to play hard every single night.”
One excuse that D’Antoni made was that some key Rockets were dealing with physical issues. Center Clint Capela has a nagging heel contusion that has caused him to miss three of the past nine games. Sixth man Eric Gordon is working his way back into shape after missing six weeks following knee surgery. Power forward PJ Tucker suffered a stinger in his right shoulder in Saturday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“That’s an excuse, but that doesn’t work,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve just got to get back. Right now, it’s a rough spot. We had rough spots last year, we had rough spots the year before, you always have rough spots.”
The Rockets responded to a rough spot at the beginning of last season by getting rid of Carmelo Anthony, who was exiled when Houston had a 4-6 record and eventually traded to the Chicago Bulls along with cash in a salary-dump deal. Anthony didn’t get another opportunity to play in the NBA until Portland signed him in mid-November, but he insisted that he had no extra emotions about facing the Rockets for the first time since his awkward dismissal.
“I kind of got past all of that, the time that I was off,” said Anthony, who had 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and 12 rebounds in the Blazers’ win. “The time that I did have to kind of think about that situation, and I’ve done dealt with every emotion that you could think about. Trying to figure out why. Questioning myself at the beginning. Working so hard to get past that and kind of be at peace with that.”
The Rockets now are trying to figure out how to get through their rough patch. The schedule won’t do them any favors, with the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers, Thunder and Denver Nuggets coming to town for the remainder of Houston’s homestand.
“It doesn’t get any easier for us,” said Harden, who has had his two lowest-scoring outings of the season over the past four games. “We’ve got some tough opponents coming up, and we’ve got to figure our way through it. We will. We will. I think everyone goes through the tough times throughout the course of the year. For us, this is now.”
Added Westbrook: “The real measurement of a man is where you stand in adversity. So we’ll see. I live for things like this, and I know the guys in the locker room are feeling the same way. We’ve just got to stay with it.”