A Bottle Rocket Message

As the Rockets and Knicks paths crossed in the seas of another regular season, the Knicks should consider bottling the message, example and forewarning provided by the plight of the Houston Rockets of recent vintage.

Prior to playing the Rockets on Saturday Night, the Knicks had ridden the crest of a three game winning streak capped off by one of New York’s best total team performances, which came against the feisty Eastern Conference Rival and Playoff Hopeful, Charlotte Bobcats. New York’s early January winning surge had placed the Knicks just percentage points behind both the Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks for a bid at either the 8th or 7th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With the exception of Al Harrington’s sprained left calve, the Knicks began a road trip Healthy and brimming with the confidence of their January winning streak.

The Knicks opponents, on the other hand, were the reeling Houston Rockets who had started off January with a three game road-losing streak. The Rockets New Years losing streak placed them in the vulnerable position of slipping from the tenuous 7th seed they held in the Western Conference Playoff field. As the Rockets faltered in their efforts to get on the win column in January, teams such as the Thunder, Hornets, Jazz and Grizzlies sought to move ahead of the Rockets for playoff positioning. The January struggles pushed an already shorthanded Rockets team, who continued to be without the services of Star big man Yao Ming and fading star forward Tracy McGrady, to question the chemistry and resolve of the teams current first team players and turn to the respite of practice to regroup.

As the Rockets returned home to tend to their wounds entering their Saturday showdown against a revitalized Knicks team and as the Knicks jumped to a 13 point late 2nd quarter lead, both teams appeared to be on seemingly different future trajectories inconsistent with their recent histories of overall success and failure. But then the Rockets displayed the unheralded grittiness and fight that had one NBA Columnist dub the Rockets a team of tough guys led by reserve forward Carl Landry. The Rockets resurgence to take the game against the Knicks began late in the 2nd quarter as the Rockets went on a 9 – 2 run to bring the Rockets to a 57 – 51 deficit at halftime. The Rockets Rally continued in the 2nd half as the shortest player on Houston’s severely undersized frontline, 6’6″ center/ forward, Chucky Atkins increased his defensive focus and intensity on 6’9″, All Star Forward in waiting, David Lee. Lee, who had scored 20 points in the first half, scored only 6 in the second half, which likely prompted him to walk away from the locker room, apparently in disgust, without speak to any reporters.  Despite the Rockets lack of size inside, they outrebounded the Knicks 40-32 overall, with a 13 -5 advantage on the offensive boards and the Rockets also outscored the Knicks in the paint holding a 44 – 38 advantage in that category. With Lee neutralized in the 2nd half, the Rockets little known starting guards and reserve power forwards, Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola and Carl Landry collectively picked up the scoring load to pace the Rockets to a 54 – 39 scoring advantage, capped off by a 27 – 17 4th quarter surge in which the Rockets effectively took the game away from the overconfident Knicks.

The Rockets eventual 105 – 96 victory, when all seemed bleak for Houston is far from anything new to a Franchise that had taken the eventual 2009 NBA Champion Lakers to a 7 game series without the services of Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady. In contrast to the Knicks sole playoff appearance in the 2003 – 04 NBA season, the Rockets have been to the playoffs five times during the past six seasons. Often the Rockets have had to do without the services of either or both of the Superstars acquired to bring the Rockets back to their championship glory years. Forged in the fires of the untimely absences of one or both of the team’s two stars, usually due to injury, the Rockets have become a team that plays greater than the sum of their parts, often time besting more talented yet less cohesive teams and forcing championship caliber competition to earn their victories against them. The Rockets resolve has driven the little franchise that could to a 21 – 16 record that has made them one of the NBAs surprise teams this season, when one considers the teams current absence of true star caliber talent.

As the Knicks exit the city of Houston, they may very well take heed of the example of selfless team play, unity, grit and determination set by the Rockets. In the example of the Houston Rockets TEAM of recent vintage, the Knicks may take to heart that a professional NBA team, absent a superstar, can well compete and win consistently on a night in night out basis. The Knicks may recall that a quasi star or injury plagued fading star whose personal trajectory runs contrary to that of a much needed unified team goal is not the type of star to shoot for. On a sour note the Knicks may be mindful that ultimately playoff success depends on the presence of at least one, if not two, healthy superstars, which the Rockets have not had consistently on the floor during their past 5 playoff trips since the 2003 – 04 season, which has in many ways resulted in a lack of playoff success for the Rockets Franchise, who have only made it once to the NBA Western Conference’s Semi-Final Round Last Year until Yao Ming went out due to injury.

In a way the Current Knicks appear to be very well on their way to absorbing the lessons and example set by the Rockets Franchise of recent vintage. Namely the Knicks since December have shifted from the sorry franchise and team that obsequiously wooed Lebron James all the while taking a Royal Thrashing from the Kings men when they Face the Cavaliers. Though the Knicks may be deemed a bunch of mecenaries, because many of the player contracts on the team run out on July 1, 2010, the current collection of veteran Knicks have rallied around one another, improved collectively on defense and were for the most part playing selfless and professional basketball. The Knicks Franchise has made great strides in jettisoning the onerous burdens of large contracts attached to borderline start players whose time with the Knicks did not bring them to the playoff tournament. Lastly since December the Knicks have played winning basketball in the absence of the presence of a transcendent star player, which they certainly hope to lure in the summer of 2010, by forging a 12 – 7 record since that month.

Most importantly, for now, should the Knicks find themselves against the wall of a growing losing streak, they could take heart in their turn around despite a succession of a 3, 6 and 5 game losing streaks to start their 2009 – 2010 campaign, which very well rivals the Rockets resilient comeback against them in Saturday Night’s 105 – 96 Rockets victory.