CHICAGO -- If the Houston Rockets are going to make one of those surges they keep talking about, now is the time to do it.
Not in April because, to be honest, it will be too late.
A five-game trip that began Saturday night at the United Center against another mediocre team, the Chicago Bulls, just resulted in more of the same for the Rockets.
The Rockets' on-court defensive chemistry remained terrible as the Bulls churned to a 108-100 victory, and Houston again fell victim to a lack of consistent shooting, missing its first 11 3-pointers. Afterward, there was a difference of opinion on why the team lost.
"Yes, it's very difficult always, climbing uphill," interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "We just need to start better in that first quarter. We just need to put pressure on them to chase us. When you're chasing, shots get tighter and every possession becomes more important."
"It wasn't even a slow start because we got back into the game and took the lead in that second quarter," Harden said quietly. "In the fourth quarter, we cut it to an eight-point lead and they went on a 9-0 run. It's tough to withstand that on the road or at home against any team, especially a good team. It's a situation like that we got to avoid."
Said Howard: "I don't think it's the slow start that got it there, as the reason why we lost the game. Our team defense has to be a lot better."
The Rockets trailed by as many as 12 in the first quarter but responded in the second, even taking a lead before the Bulls finished the first half leading 55-43. Chicago boosted the lead to as many as 15 points in the third only to see the Rockets trim the deficit to single digits. Chicago went up 100-82 in the fourth before Houston cut it to 10, then to four with 34.8 seconds left. Pau Gasol made two free throws with 25.5 seconds left to seal it.
If Harden and Howard believe this team got back in the game, that's fine. They have a right to voice that opinion. But the Rockets just never seemed to, always fighting, crawling to get back, never really showing the confidence they could win it.
It seems by the time the Rockets realize they need to fight, it's almost too late.
As a team, the Rockets shot 40.2 percent from the field and forced 26 turnovers, which they turned into 25 points. Howard struggled badly at the rim, going 3-for-9 from the field, with two made left-handed hook shots and a putback.
Harden continues to be a fantastic scorer, finishing with a game-high 36 points on 26 shots and 12 made free throws. But his nine turnovers sapped the life out of the Rockets, at times, and continued to stunt any chemistry with Howard.
With the Rockets down seven with less than a minute to play, Harden tried a bounce pass to Howard, who either didn't know it was coming or just couldn't reach it. Either way it was Harden's ninth and final turnover of the night, meaning that a Corey Brewer 3 on the next possession to cut the deficit to four was just too late.
In the past two games, the Rockets have made only 12 of 70 3-pointers. The 58 misses is just shy of both the franchise mark for missed 3s over a two-game span (61) and the NBA record of 63 set by Dallas in 1996.
"You never want to say this, but we've been struggling shooting the ball," Patrick Beverley said. "It makes it that much harder on defense. I just keep preaching you just got to keep laying our hat on the defensive end and continue to get stops. It's up and down. We just got to find a way to do it consistently."
Harden keeps saying this team will be all right, and if he means that the Rockets will remain the eighth seed in the West, waiting to get swept by Golden State, then fine. He's right, the Rockets will be all right.
But if Harden believes the Rockets can push forward with a long winning stretch -- eight of nine games or something like that -- well, that appears unrealistic. Since the beginning of February, the Rockets are 5-7, and with games remaining on this road swing against playoff-bound Toronto (Sunday) and Boston (Friday) sandwiched around a visit to woeful Philadelphia, how could anyone think the Rockets would start surging? The trip ends next Saturday at Charlotte, and who knows where the Rockets will be by then.
"It's all right, we got to bounce back tomorrow," Harden said. "Just eliminate things like that where we give up 9-0 runs and we'll be all right. It's tough, it's tough, it's tough, it's tough. But we got to eliminate those, like I said."