It's been an ugly new year so far for the Houston Rockets.
They snapped a seven-game losing streak with an ugly win in Charlotte on Monday and were finally back on their own practice floor Tuesday after playing nine of their first 12 games of 2013 on the road.
Where to begin?
The Rockets (22-21) averaged 115.8 points during a five-game winning streak Dec. 31-Jan. 8. They've averaged only 94.1 points in the eight games since, and lead the league in turnovers (16.5 per game) heading into Wednesday's game against Denver.
Coach Kevin McHale doesn't see the offense as the Rockets' most glaring issue at the moment. Houston also ranks last in points allowed (103.2 points per game), and fixing the defense is McHale's most immediate priority.
"That's been a concern," McHale said. "The offense is going to come and go, we've missed a lot of shots during this stretch and we've had a lot of turnovers. But we've got to tighten up defensively."
That won't be easy against the Nuggets (25-18), who have averaged 104.0 points in winning four straight against the Rockets - three in Houston. Denver is one of the league's highest-scoring teams at 103.1 points per game, and is coming off a 121-118 overtime win Sunday against Oklahoma City.
"We did fight through a lot of adversity," forward Kenneth Faried told the team's official website. "It helped being at home because we really had our confidence going. Guys kept fighting. What can I say? The team played really well. This is a confidence-booster right now."
There's been little confidence surrounding the Rockets lately. Following a 117-109 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last week, forward Chandler Parsons bluntly evaluated the Rockets' defense.
"There's no excuse for guys just getting blown by or getting just dominated," Parsons said. "Man up, play better."
Houston then dropped games at Dallas, Indiana and Minnesota, a skid that culminated in a players-only meeting over the weekend. The Rockets won 100-94 in Charlotte by outscoring the Bobcats 26-13 in the final quarter - a glimpse of the kind of defense they need to play.
"When we don't get stops, it doesn't allow us to get out on transition, where we're best," Parsons said. "It should start on the defensive end, all of us, individually and collectively. Focus in on that."
McHale said Houston's defensive improvement has to start down low. Center Omer Asik is having a solid first season in Houston, averaging 10.3 points and 11.0 rebounds. But he's averaging only 1.1 blocks, and the Rockets lack any shot-blocking presence to scare off opponents.
"You've got to start off by protecting the paint," McHale said. "The best way to protect the paint is having two 7-foot-2 guys who can block shots all over the place. That's hard to find, so the next best way is to find bodies. We've got to put bodies in the paint and we've got to keep people out, we've got to take away layups and we've got to get defensive rebounds."
That's a difficult proposition against Denver, which leads the league in second-chance points (17.0 per game), offensive rebounds (14.0) and points in the paint (56.4) largely thanks to Faried. He had 16 points and 16 rebounds - nine offensive - in the Nuggets' 93-87 win in Houston on Nov. 7.
James Harden struggled in that loss, shooting 5 of 15 and committing six turnovers. He was the last Rocket on the floor Tuesday, pouring in one 3-pointer after another after shooting 25.0 percent - 14.8 from long distance - during Houston's trip.
The Rockets have 12 games remaining before the NBA's All-Star Weekend comes to town. They seemed upbeat after Tuesday's practice, but Harden acknowledged that the young team's confidence was damaged by the recent slide.
Different from his days in Oklahoma City, Harden feels like everyone is looking to him for leadership.
"We've got to bring each other in," Harden said. "We went through a tough stretch, so everybody kind of put their heads down a little bit. Being that this is a new role for me, I've got to do a better job of leading these guys and telling them that this is a game, everybody goes through these stretches. We've got to figure a way to get out of it."
If they want to start that upward climb Wednesday, they'd do well to devise a plan to contain Ty Lawson. Denver's point guard has scored at least 20 points in all four contests during the Nuggets' series winning streak.
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