Wins notwithstanding, Rockets seek better 'D'
Opponents have hit 100 points in 4 of last 6 games
By MEGAN MANFULL
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Many times this season, it has been impossible to tell that the Rockets rank as the oldest team in the NBA. This week, it is obvious.
Instead of celebrating the fact they are seven games over .500 for the first time all season, the players are fretting about their shortcomings.
They are far from being young and naive. And while they know 100-point outings will sometimes compensate for poor defense and win them a few games, the Rockets also know that's not the formula for winning championships.
"We're winning games, but it's a bit of fool's gold defensively," guard Jon Barry said. "Teams are shooting almost 50 percent on us as of late. When you play so well offensively, you have a tendency to slack on the other end.
"Right now, we're playing great offensively, and defensively we're just not getting it done. Fortunately, we're winning. But I think we all realize it's a bit of fool's gold."
The Rockets have allowed opponents to surpass the 100-point mark four times in the last six games. In the preceding 43 games, they gave up 100 points just 10 times.
A horrid half
Sunday against the Lakers, the Rockets found themselves on the short end of several mismatches and fell apart defensively as Los Angeles scored 63 second-half points, a season high for an opponent in one half. But the rash of offense against the Rockets, who blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead before rallying to victory, was hardly an isolated incident.
For the season, the Rockets rank third in the league in opponents' field-goal percentage (.429). But in the past six games, opponents have shot 47.2 percent from the field.
Such numbers have hardly gone unnoticed by the players or coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose teams are known for being defensive-minded.
"We're playing with fire defensively," Van Gundy said.
The Rockets have won eight of their last 10 games, but only one of those victories was lopsided. Not counting the Rockets' 23-point laugher over Philadelphia on Feb. 2, their average margin of victory in the other seven wins was only 5.1 points.
Part of the problem has been rebounding. The Lakers had 17 offensive boards Sunday and outrebounded the Rockets 54-36. In a 92-91 win at New York on Jan. 21, the Rockets allowed the Knicks 15 offensive rebounds.
"When you give a team (like L.A.) 17 chances on the offensive end, that'll kill you," Tracy McGrady said. "We just need to rebound."
The Rockets are also having a hard time adjusting when opponents penetrate. The lane is becoming too clogged, leaving outside shooters wide open. The Lakers' Jumaine Jones and Chucky Atkins benefited from their teammates' getting in the paint and combined to go 7-of-13 from 3-point range.
"We're letting too many people get by us one-on-one," Barry said. "Our help is late. Anytime you have help, it's obviously going to open somebody up, but our help has been a little bit late, and it kind of has a snowball effect."
The defensive mishaps have perhaps escaped some notice because the offense has hidden many of the errors. The Rockets have posted 100 points in three consecutive victories for the first time all season.
But the problems are still nagging at the players, mostly because their record at the All-Star break, which is eight days away, will be much less important than their season-ending mark. The Rockets are loaded with veterans who know what eventually will win — or cost them — the biggest games.
"Some nights we'll be able to get away with it, but most nights — in playoff thinking — we've got to definitely do something to make our defense better," David Wesley said. "You want to put your defense and offense together. That's going to make us more of a championship-type team if we can do both on any given night."
T-Mac honored again
Tracy McGrady picked up yet another NBA honor Monday when the league named him the Western Conference Player of the Week. For the week ending Sunday, McGrady averaged 27.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists as the Rockets went 4-0.
McGrady became the first player in Rockets history to win the Player of the Week award twice in a four-week span. He also earned the honor for the week of Jan. 10-16. Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Steve Francis are the only other Rockets to win the award multiple times in a season.
Leading the Rockets this season with averages of 25.8 points, 5.7 assists and 1.70 steals, McGrady stood as the only NBA player to average at least 25 points, six rebounds and six assists last week. His 27.8 points per game ranked second in the Western Confer-ence as he led the Rockets to their best week of the season.
Even coach Jeff Van Gundy didn't try to downplay how critical Sunday's 103-102 victory over the Lakers was. The Rockets returned from their eight-day, four-game trip at 4 a.m. Saturday.
They won their last three games on the road, but Van Gundy said the highlight of the "trip" was Sunday's home game.
"It's the best win of the road trip right there," he said. "The most important game of the road trip is your first game home."
Tracy McGrady agreed and said the team rebounded well from losing to Miami in the first game of the trip.
"Coming back home, you should have great confidence when you have a road trip like that," he said. "Teams have a tendency of relaxing when they come back. (Sunday) was a crucial game for us. We came out with authority."
-- MEGAN MANFULL