HOUSTON -- No wonder Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey continues to worry.
Morey's goal is for his team to become elite, and while he was pleased with the season-high five-game winning streak the Rockets were riding, it's clear more work is needed.
Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers showed Morey's group what an elite team is supposed to do: defeat middle-of-the-pack opponents.
Houston was beaten badly, 91-77, setting season lows in points scored and field goals made (26) as the win streak ended. Dwight Howard spoke softly about the reality of what this Rockets team is, but the center's words resonated.
"We got to decide what we're going to do," Howard said after scoring a team-high 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. "Middle of the pack doesn't sound good, neither does it look good."
Against the NBA's top six teams, Houston is just 2-4, with three of those losses coming to last season's Finals participants.
If the Rockets had won, they would have moved into a tie for the sixth seed in the Western Conference with Memphis. The loss kept the Rockets seventh, in the lower half of the pack.
"It doesn't sound good saying it, and you don't want to be in that position where you're saying 'We're a middle-of-a-pack team,' " Howard said. "That's not what we expect. That's not how we should play, like a middle-of-a-pack team. We've got to get better at that and we've got to do it together."
Houston had won 21 consecutive games when holding opponents to below 40 percent from the field, until Friday, when the Cavs won shooting 39.1 percent. The Rockets hurt themselves by failing to hit their own shots, going 6-for-25 from 3-point range and committing 19 turnovers, resulting in 19 points for the Cavs.
James Harden struggled badly, going 2-for-10 from the field with eight turnovers, tying for his second-highest total of the season. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert defended Harden the most and, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information, he went 1-for-8 with five turnovers and four points against the duo.
"Obviously I didn't play well," Harden said. "I didn't make shots. They did a very good job at just being aggressive, trapping me, making me get off the ball. They got their hands on a couple of deflections. It was a great game plan by them from the beginning. We couldn't get into a rhythm offensively."
Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff said the Cavs just smothered his team on the defensive end, where it was difficult for most players to get into a rhythm.
As a team, the Rockets shot 35.1 percent from the field, with several players failing to finish shots: Trevor Ariza missed 6-of-9, Terrence Jones missed 5-of-6, Marcus Thornton 9-of-10 and Corey Brewer and Jason Terry combining to miss 7-of-10 shots. On the interior, Clint Capela missed 4-of-7 shots and Howard missed 5-of-9.
Patrick Beverley was the lone Rocket with a positive night, going 5-for-8 from the field to finish with 13 points before leaving because of a sprained ankle.
This was one of those games where the Rockets needed to show up on the big stage and failed to do so.
"Tough pill to swallow," Howard said. "We didn't play our brand of basketball to compete with these guys. They're a battle-tested team, they've been to the Finals together and they've been in some tough battles. So they've seen just about everything. They play that way; we have to want to be on that level."
If the Rockets had lost, by say, five or six points, then maybe you'd feel better about this loss. But to get blown out at home by a Cleveland team on the second of a back-to-back set was very disconcerting.
Harden chalked the loss up as just one game, and pointed to consecutive games over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in Los Angeles that could erase what happened Friday night.
"We just got to continue to improve and do the [right] things and we'll be all right," he said.
The Rockets played fine during the five-game win streak, and the poor effort against an elite team shouldn't make people forget about them.
Yet, if the losing continues against the Lakers on Sunday and the Clippers on Monday on the West Coast, the volume will go back up on all that noise about how badly the Rockets have played this season.
One loss doesn't make a season, but Morey has said that how you play matters. If you play well, regardless if you win or lose, more victories will occur.
His Rockets are not there yet.
"We got to continue to get better," Howard said. "We got to continue to push each other, and the main thing we got to do is stick together. I think [Friday] when we hit a little adversity out there on the floor, we kinda separated a little bit. We have to stay positive throughout the game no matter what happens. That will be a test for this team and we have to overcome those tests."