Rockets ponder what-ifs after missing playoffs
By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON (AP) A little more than two weeks ago it appeared the Houston Rockets were headed to the playoffs in Kevin McHale's first season as coach.
Instead a late-season swoon dropped the Rockets out of the postseason for the third straight year and left them to ponder what happened during a six-game losing streak that doomed their season.
"We had one goal, to make the playoffs," McHale said. "We didn't do it. We fell short, that's the bottom line. We didn't have a successful season and now everybody's got to figure out what we can all do to get better."
McHale, who returned to coaching after two seasons as a television analyst, has had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach since the collapse and hasn't been able to watch games when he's home at night like he usually does.
"There's no way we shouldn't be playing in the playoffs this weekend," he said.
The Rockets were in sixth place in the Western Conference after a win over Portland on April 9 which completed a four-game road sweep. Then the trouble began, with Houston dropping a season-high six straight games from April 11-19 that left it nearly impossible to reach the postseason.
Falling out of contention late was even more disappointing because of the obstacles this team overcame to be in line for the postseason entering April. The Rockets made their surge with starters Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry out with injuries.
Martin, averaged 17.1 points this season, but didn't play after March 11 because of a shoulder injury.
McHale thinks his team may have not been ready for the intensity of competition late in the season with so much on the line.
"It's a learning experience," he said. "The guys I've talked to I've said: `You're going to play in meaningful games there's going to be a lot of heat, they're going to be coming for you and there's just a level you've got to understand and you've got to come out with that level."
The Rockets were eliminated from contention with a loss at Miami two days after their six-game losing streak ended.
"It's tough," point guard Goran Dragic said. "Everybody was sad and frustrated that we didn't make the playoffs. We were in a really good spot, but unfortunately we didn't play right and we didn't play good at the right moment and that cost us the playoffs."
A bright spot for the Rockets was the emergence of Dragic while Lowry was out for 18 games beginning March 10 with a bacterial infection. Dragic averaged more than 18 points from March 10 until the end of the season.
Dragic, a third-year pro, is an unrestricted free agent who could land elsewhere next season. He would like to stay in Houston, but he also wants to be a full-time starter, which might not happen with the Rockets.
"I was working for that moment for years in the NBA," Dragic said of starting when Lowry was out. "I tried to establish my name here in the league, and some day to be a starter and lead a team. I'm really happy that it happened. It's still not over, I know I have to work hard. Every day, somebody new is coming for you and your spot."
McHale knows missing training camp and offseason preparations and having a shortened season because of the lockout was difficult for his team, especially with a new coach. He's hoping to see progress from several key young players with things back to normal this offseason.
He wants to see lottery pick Marcus Morris develop in the system after a disappointing rookie campaign where he appeared in just 16 games. Chandler Parsons had a much better first season in the league, starting 57 games and averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.
McHale certainly isn't against adding new talent to his team, but knows that the key to long-term success is to cultivate the players already in the system.
"You develop from within and then, hopefully, you add pieces that mesh and then you get better," he said. "We've got to get better and the easiest way to get better is from within. The most sexy way is to say: `Oh, we'll go sign Player X, Y or Z.' Well, there's one of them and there are 15 teams trying to get him. The unsexy way to improve is from within, and through hard work."
The Rockets got a bigger contribution this season from Courtney Lee, who started 26 games and averaged 11.4 points. He's a restricted free agent who hopes he's back next season to build on this season's progress.
"I wish to have everybody back and stay the same team, because we were so close this year and that's all we're going to do, is get better and know each other's games even more and keep pushing," he said. "That's a decision that those guys upstairs have to make, and that's what makes their jobs difficult."
Updated April 27, 2012