I have only been to a couple of Rockets games this season, but I made Wednesday night my third for the chance to sit in the "Red Alert" section.
I got there a little early and the Rockets hand out a "Rockets Blastoff" program before the game, which is a booklet that includes rosters for both teams, stats, a lot of ads, etc. They always feature a Rocket on the cover, and I always found it ironic that the last game I went to had Derek Anderson on the front.
Well, Wednesday's cover was Jon Barry.
I was a little shocked and said to the lady who handed me one, "You know they cut him today, right?"
She laughed, then paused. "Did they really?"
Ouch. Bad omen.
Let me say, if you like cheering loudly at games, you need to check out the Red Alert group (section 101). It was a blast and a completely different fan experience than the one you usually get surrounded by typical sitting-on-their-hands Toyota Center fans. They gave out free T-shirts to the section and we were LOUD ... very loud. Allen Iverson received chants of "PRACTICE" every time he got to the line. Chris Webber got "TYRA BANKS" and Kyle Korver got "ASHTON".
The game was another story. The Rockets competed, but they had to be much more than "competitive" in a game they could not afford to lose, against an opponent that is on their level, if not below it.
The Rockets had built an 11-point third quarter lead, but just collapsed defensively in the fourth. Philly, led by Iverson, put up 33 in the final frame and when David Wesley short-armed back-to-back triples in the final minute, that was it.
Philly 106, Houston 102.
But the game may have been much more than just another home loss for the Rockets. This may have sealed the "lottery team" label for the Rockets this season. With 4 games in March against the likes of the Spurs and Mavericks, Houston could ill-afford to lose against the Sixers.
Can they still do it? Mathematically, of course. Last year's squad? I would say I would feel pretty confident. That team had a highly dangerous Tracy McGrady, a strong defense inside and out and a slew of highly competent three-point shooters.
This team has none of that.
McGrady is on a hiatus -- and all we can do is hope it's a mental one. That alone is bad... but the bigger concern is that he physically is having problems, and that would be very bad.
Three-point shooters? Forget about it - they're virtually all gone. Bobby Sura, Mike James, Scott Padgett ... now waiving Barry eliminated the hope that the Rockets would get back some of that magic from last year off the bench.
On this night the Rockets shot 25 threes and made just 6. Six. Keep in mind, these are generally open looks that Yao Ming and T-Mac are creating for their teammates. This year's version of the backcourt -- Wesley, Rafer Alston, Keith Bogans and Luther Head -- combined to go 3-19.
And therein lies your ballgame. Yes, the perimeter defense was bad (the Sixers shot 52%). Yes, McGrady was way off in the first half. But if the guards could maybe just miss 14 of those 19 triples, the team wins.
I've felt for some time that the power forward position is the top need for the Rockets, but I may have to change that because the backcourt is a mess.
Despite the bad night, I give Wesley major props for playing over 35 minutes a night as an undersized guard at his age -- but that is the problem: He's 35.
Rafer Alston looks to have been a good move to replace Sura, but not at the cost of Mike James. Alston's stock was low in Toronto and the Raptors were looking to unload his 6-year deal. To get him, the Rockets gave up a low-priced fiery talent who was on the final year of his deal.
James is averaging 18.2 points this year, hitting over 47% from the field and nearly 44% (!) from three-point range. Mind-numbing, really.
Luther shows promise, but he's spastic and out of control at times. His three-point shot, which was money early in the season, has been erratic. Keith Bogans was an excellent acquisition as a defensive role player who can run, but as a three-point bomber, he's looking highly inadequate.
And in a nutshell, that's why it's going to take a significant shift in play -- even with Yao's emergence -- for me to continue to think this Rocket team is going to make the playoffs, as I believed going in to Wednesday night.
They simply can't shoot straight most nights.