TEMPE, Ariz. – Sitting in a chair after a late Wednesday afternoon practice, Trevor Ariza was waiting to get his knee wrapped in ice when he was asked whether the Houston Rockets needed the All-Star break.
“Hell yeah, we needed a break, everybody needed a break,” Ariza said. “It’s good to be back and definitely good to get a good practice in like [Wednesday] and just try to get ready for the rest of the season.”
The first half of the season ended with interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff saying that his team was broken and the Rockets falling from among the top eight seeds in the Western Conference. With 27 games remaining, beginning Friday in Phoenix, the Rockets returned to practice in the mountains of Arizona, on the campus of the alma mater of their star player, James Harden.
There is a large poster of Harden on the wall inside the practice facility at Arizona State. Harden has seen the poster before, and on Wednesday he wasn’t in a mood to go into great detail about what he was before The Beard and the Fo’ Hawk became his trademark.
Harden, his voice hoarse from All-Star Weekend in Toronto, is about business. His team is in trouble, with chemistry issues, trade rumors swirling around center Dwight Howard and the general question of whether they can set things right.
“Yeah, of course [the season can be saved],” Harden said. “We have an opportunity. We know what we’re capable of and we just got to go out there and do it with each other.”
Harden wasn’t alone in thinking the season can be salvaged.
“It’s not over; we still have 27 games left, so that’s what we’re focusing on and we're working on, to do better than what we did in the first half,” Ariza said. “I still like our chances to get to [where] we need to get to. Anything can happen.”
Bickerstaff seemed taken aback by the reaction to his comments that the team is broken. General manager Daryl Morey, Bickerstaff, Harden and Howard met after a loss in Portland on Feb. 10 to discuss what had gone wrong. The players also met among themselves, another get-it-off-your-chest session.
Bickerstaff contends he didn’t call his team out; he was saying his group just isn’t where it needs to be.
“You trust in the guys and we trust in each other. Through that trust we will develop what we need to develop, and we will,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s no doubt about that in my mind. These guys again, time and time again, this year are about the right thing. So for us, it’s about the process of getting to where we want to be. We got to grind through the process. You’re going to have downs in the process, but it can’t be so down [that] everybody jumps ship, and this group hasn’t done that and they won’t do that. No one is ... demanding trades, asking for this and that and a third. Everybody here is in. So we’ll work together like we always do and we’ll figure it out.”
Reports continue to surface that the Rockets want to trade Howard, something he is ignoring. Howard said he wants to return to Houston. Meanwhile, on Wednesday another report said the team was in talks with Utah about trading Ty Lawson.
Bickerstaff said he didn’t address trade rumors with his group and he expects the same players to return after the trade deadline on Thursday.
What Bickerstaff talked about with his team was playing better.
The Rockets allow 106.8 points per game, the second most in the league, and opponents have an effective field goal percentage of .519, compared with the league average of .499. The offense has been good at times, yet there are issues when the ball sticks to Harden, who leads the league in isolation plays. Howard doesn’t get the ball enough; he averages 8.8 shots per game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 2004-05.
Harden agrees that whatever the positives the Rockets convey on the floor must be done on a consistent basis if things are to improve.
Howard doesn’t want to speak about anything negative, instead focusing on what’s best.
“We were maybe cracked,” he said. “We may have stumbled and haven’t played as good as we need to play in the first half of the season and we have to stay positive. I’m going to stay positive and continue to push that message of positivity around the team. There’s no need to be negative, no need to think about anything that happened in the first half of the season. That’s over with. We have to clear our minds of that and come back in the second half of the season and be great.”