The goal has always been to improve. Development would be their goal, the priority for the season. Success would be measured not by scoreboards or standings but by how much the Rockets have grown.
Yet as teammates dunked and then mauled Jabari Smith Jr. in the locker room on Friday, his game winning 3-pointer after picking up a third straight game win, the Rockets had indeed learned some lessons. They’ve found that winning can be its own reward, especially if it comes through the advances the Rockets have long sought.
“We know we’re not playing to make the playoffs or anything like that, but … growth is the biggest one we’re trying to finish the season with,” said guard Jalen Green. “We are growing in the right direction.”
The signs of improvement, especially individually, had been there before there was evidence of it. But they were overshadowed by losing streaks, maddening and inexplicable defeats.
The Rockets likely would have been no better had they not delivered wins in the last three-tenths of a second or slumped late in close games before the streak, even if their record was closer to play-in than lottery hopefuls. But there are scoreboards and rankings. The Rockets lacked the validation that came with narrow wins against the Celtics, Lakers and Pelicans, the kind of wins that so often walked away.
“We’ve had a lot of bad times this year,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “We fought against them. We’re starting to see that once we get over it, we can play and play well.”
Running on a string of plays down the stretch on Friday offered a clear sign of growth, even through the first four home games. But nothing could be a more obvious sign of improvement than victory with Smith draining the winning 3 and Alperen Sengun stepping up defensively.
“Better late than never,” Silas said with a laugh. “But it’s good to see the effort on defense, and Jabari, what a shot. What a blow. Happy for him. Happy for the group. They were really excited in the locker room after the game. Very excited.”
At the last second, the winning jumpers will bring celebration, but there was an understanding that the growing pains benefited them.
It’s not the first time, even this season. Similarly, the Rockets had thought they had moved on in December, as former Rockets guard Eric Gordon said at the time, weeks before he complained weeks later that there had been “no improvement.” After the Rockets’ win was completed on Friday, Gordon tweeted “That’s growth!!!!!”
Any progress made will be tested with Sunday’s rematch against the Pelicans, a straight game against the Warriors on Monday and a particularly brutal five-game road trip that follows.
Season results are not and cannot be undone. The Rockets are likely to remain in the bottom three teams in the league, with the best chance at the top picks in the draft. But more than that their mood improved.
“The maturity we showed when they were 16, the fight from our bench, the energy in our fights, there was no fight or fight,” Smith said. “We were all together. We are all together. We are all discovering it. I definitely feel that we are improving. Early in the season, we don’t come back and win that game. We are taking steps in the right direction.”
Farm had started with the Rockets collapsing in the final minutes against the Bulls, with an execution so disastrous it almost stopped traffic for the tire shops to get a closer look. During Friday’s stretch, they hit four consecutive plays off the field perfectly or after the timeout.
“What I’ve been trying to preach is, the mistakes we made earlier in the season, let’s not make them again,” KJ Martin said. “After the All-Star break, we all spoke up and said, ‘Let’s make these the best games we’ve played all season.’ Just knowing the mistakes we’ve made before these last couple games, going out there and trying to execute.
“If you run and run a good play and get a good shot and miss it, oh well. We did what we had to do. But we go out there and mess up plays and don’t make a good shot, that kind of linger.
There were big shots; Kevin Porter Jr.’s pull-up 3 on a steal, green corner jumper with a toe to the line, and Smith’s last 3 to win the game. But the execution of the plays was far better than Wednesday’s loss to the Bulls or even a win against the Lakers, the first thing Silas addressed during Friday’s pregame walk-through.
“Early on, we were getting our reps and stuff, but we weren’t really learning from our mistakes,” Porter said. “Recently, you see it. After each game, we’ve been to more moments that we’ve been in the game before and learned from them. Over the past week, we’ve been able to learn and adapt. We have been focused and blocked.
That may have started with a team meeting after the All-Star break mentioned by several players on Saturday. The Rockets went into hiatus after a loss so bad that Jae’Sean Tate called it “a bloodbath.” They came off the break with losses to the Warriors and Trail Blazers, but with more determination.
“It was one of the keys,” Tate said. “Adding Frank (Kaminsky) here and having another vet, his whole message in that meeting was ‘Let’s try to play our best basketball by the end of the year.’
“From All-Star weekend to now, growth, togetherness and how we finished games are on track with our goal. All these teams that are trying to make the playoffs, you know you come here or play against the Rockets, you know you have to come play.
Silas said the bout “played a part” in the improved game since.
“We were just talking about how we want these last 24 games to be,” he said. “Who we want to be in these last 24 games. I wanted to give them something to reach for. I think it has something to do with it, but it has more to do with our guys. I wanted to hear what they wanted from these final 24. They came up with some good things about playing together, playing our best basketball late in the season, better than we did, and we’re doing it.
The Rockets lost their first four games from halftime, extending their losing streak to 11 games. But they believed the increased determination allowed them to learn from defeats like they never have before, citing this week’s victories as evidence. I’m 5-3 off the losing streak.
There were signs of improvement before some home victories. They’re easier to see — and appreciate — with the scoreboard playing.
“It’s always easier to sleep at night when you have a win,” Tate said. “This is a good thing for us to build.
“We’ve been in those positions where it was all the way to the edge earlier this season. Our execution and our attention to detail, we fell short of those games. You see the last few games, it got to the limit and we just stuck and did the things we had to do to get the win. Right there, that’s growth. And we will continue to grow.”