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Friday, April 25, 2014
Rockets backing Kevin McHale

By Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein
ESPN.com

PORTLAND -- The Houston Rockets have yet to pick up their option on the fourth year of Kevin McHale's contract, but sources close to the situation said this week that support for the coach remains strong within the organization and among key players despite the team's struggles thus far in the playoffs.

The Rockets came into this season with high hopes after winning the free-agent sweepstakes to sign Dwight Howard last summer but found themselves facing a 2-0 series deficit to the Portland Trail Blazers entering Friday night's Game 3 at the Moda Center, where Portland is 31-10 this season.

Although there is no guarantee he would survive a first-round exit -- particularly a sweep -- sources told ESPN.com that the prevailing feeling in team circles is that McHale "deserves more than one season with this group." McHale has strong support from high-profile Rockets such as Howard and forward Chandler Parsons, sources said, and it's believed general manager Daryl Morey and his front office also prefer to see this group -- which is the youngest team in the postseason with an average age of 25.7 -- grow together.

Kevin McHale
The Rockets have fallen short of expectations so far, but the team has faith in Kevin McHale's ability to get them there, sources said.

Sources say McHale likewise is regarded as a favorite of Rockets owner Les Alexander.

Alexander is known for his aggressive and competitive nature, but there has been an understanding among team officials that this is a young roster that still has a need or two to address even after the major acquisitions of James Harden in October 2012 and Howard.

Debate persists about what kind of roster tweaks would benefit the Rockets most, but it's generally agreed they could use a more reliable power forward to space the floor for Howard or a pass-first guard to add to their backcourt rotation, as well as a playoff-tested veteran or two to help lead the team through difficult postseason patches such as the one Houston currently faces.

The Rockets tried hard all season to find a workable trade built around reserve center Omer Asik to fill one (or more) of those needs. But Morey ultimately elected to keep the 7-footer from Turkey, believing that Asik's elite defensive and rebounding capabilities -- even in limited doses behind Howard -- were more valuable as insurance than the packages Houston was offered for him.

This is the fourth time the Rockets have lost the first two games of a playoff series at home. One came in their championship season of 1994, when they dropped the first two home games of the Western Conference finals to the Phoenix Suns and came back to win the series in seven games.

Harden said he thinks this season's team can rally and turn this series around.

"I think we were just too calm at home. Like it was going to be easy," Harden said Friday morning after the Rockets' shootaround. "We had two opportunities to win both games.

"This is going to be a great test for us. This is going to be the game-changer of the season right here."

The Blazers have been effective in this series at keeping the Rockets -- and particularly Harden -- out of transition. Houston is averaging just 16.5 fast-break points in the two games after averaging 18.5 fast-break points (third-best in the NBA) this season. Harden averaged a league-leading 6.9 fast-break points per game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but only 2.5 fast-break points in the first two games of this series.

"Give their defense a lot of credit; they've got us stopped up a bit," McHale said of Portland. "But when we have a chance to get out and run and get stops, we gotta do that. That's what we do.

"Dwight's been very good in the post, and we've got to get the ball back to him in the post through movement, but if we just wait on any possession, walk it up and then throw it in the post, that just takes out how we're built and how we've played all year."

McHale seemed to allow for the possibility of lineup tweaks in Game 3 as the team tries to balance the need to slow Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- who is averaging 44.5 points in the two games -- with its own need to get out in transition. Sources told ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh that the Rockets are "strongly considering" starting Asik in Game 3.

"You can make little tweaks," McHale said. "We're looking at doing a couple things differently. But we still have to be who we are."

However they get Harden going, it's clear the Rockets can't win unless he does. Harden is averaging 22.5 points, but he has gone just 14-of-47 (29.8 percent) from the field in the playoffs, including 8-of-32 on jump shots. Of his 32 jump shot attempts, 27 of them have been contested.

"I've just got to be more precise and have more thrust in my game," Harden said. "It's all on me. Throughout this year and a half, it's all been a learning experience for me, so now this is just another one that I will get through."