PHOENIX — The games on the three-stop road trip could not have been more different, from the lethargy that caught up to the Rockets in the final three minutes in New Orleans, to the offensive collapse in Los Angeles, to the high-flying offensive outburst in Phoenix.
In the end, however, they were different verses of the same song.
In each, with the game on the line, the Rockets could not get the stops or run their offense smoothly. Ultimately, they could not avoid their longest losing streak of the season. The Suns on Wednesday night were the latest to take over in the fourth quarter and send the Rockets to a third consecutive loss, 118-110 at US Airways Center.
“It makes it more frustrating,” Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks said of losing down the stretch throughout the skid. “We’re a team searching for an identity in the fourth quarter. Until we find it, we’ll continue to struggle. That’s where we miss our go-to guys, when we need a for-sure bucket. We have to keep growing. This is a hell of a way to do it, but that’s what we have to do.”
On Wednesday, however, the Rockets had go-to scorers.
Brooks scored a career-high 34 points, making 11 of 22 shots and adding five assists. Carl Landry had a career-high 31 points, making 14 of 23 shots and adding a team-high 10 rebounds. Together, they were the first Rockets to top 30 in the same game since Tracy McGrady went for 39 and Yao Ming had 34 against Phoenix in April 2007.
Explosive first half
Unlike the night before in L.A., scoring was coming quickly and easily, with both teams building 16-point leads in the first half, the Rockets scoring as many points (33) in the first quarter as they had in the first half against the Lakers. The Rockets powered through one 13-minute stretch by outscoring Phoenix 51-19.
As with their previous two losses, the Rockets had their chances late, with Landry scoring on consecutive possessions to cut the deficit to 112-108 heading into the final minute. But with 43.9 seconds left, Trevor Ariza missed a 3-pointer, allowing Grant Hill and Jason Richardson to close out the Suns’ victory at the free-throw line.
“We just had breakdowns,” Landry said. “I think we can compete with pretty much anybody in the league. … We just didn’t execute when we needed to late in the fourth quarter.”
For the third straight game, the Rockets lamented what they had done wrong to put themselves in position to have to win the game late, rather than what they could not get done with the game on the line. They began the game playing less defense than the Suns saw in warm-ups, helping Phoenix roll to a 21-5 start, including a 15-0 three-minute run.
Even after the Rockets answered that with an offensive blast of their own, they started the second half nearly as slowly as they had the first, with the Suns rushing through a 7-0 start to reduce the Rockets’ lead to one point. Phoenix ran Steve Nash around screens on nearly every possession until he finished with 26 points and 12 assists, leading four starters with at least 20 points each.
“Start of the first quarter and start of the third quarter, I was just really disappointed in the way we played,” Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. “We’re not doing what we need to do. We’re responding and came back and had a chance, but Nash was too good. He just orchestrated everything down the stretch for them.”
Same sad song at the end
Even when the Suns began the fourth quarter with Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire on the bench, Phoenix outscored the Rockets 11-4 to begin to take control. When Channing Frye nailed a 3-pointer with 5:53 left, the Suns led by eight points. The Rockets missed their final four shots as the Suns closed out the victory much as the Hornets and Lakers had before them.
“I’m more concerned with how we’re playing than looking them down the stretch,” Adelman said. “I fully believe that we can finish games, but if we don’t stop anybody at the other end …”
Then they have a three-game skid, with games very different until the part of the game that matters most.