HOUSTON (AP) — 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 averaged 115.8 points during a five-game winning streak from 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 (103.23 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."
Following Houston's 117-109 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last week, forward Chandler Parsons bluntly evaluated the Rockets' defense. The Clippers shot 54 percent from the field and went 11-of-19 from 3-point range.
"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 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 rebound per game. But he's averaging only 1.1 blocks per game, 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 leads to easy baskets, but those seem harder to come by lately, too.
James Harden was the last Rocket on the floor Tuesday, pouring in one 3-pointer after another. He's played like the star the Rockets were hoping he would be when they nabbed him from Oklahoma City in a stunning trade in late October.
Harden ranks fifth in scoring (25.9 points per game) and has been Houston's high scorer in 22 of 23 games. But with overall scoring down and turnovers up, the most obvious player to scrutinize is point guard Jeremy Lin, who was benched and replaced by newcomer Patrick Beverley in the fourth quarter on Monday.
Lin didn't speak to the media on Tuesday. He's had a hot-and-cold first season with the Rockets after he skyrocketed to worldwide fame in New York about this time last year. He's had his moments — 38 points in a loss to San Antonio, 22 points and nine assists in a win over the Knicks in his return to Madison Square Garden — but he's also struggled in stretches, especially with his outside shot.
McHale is quick to point out that Lin is still only 24 and has only 68 starts in his NBA career.
"Jeremy's OK," McHale said. "Jeremy is a young guy who's been up and down before. When you're a young fella, you have some ups and downs and that will be the case with a lot of guys. No big deal, he's going to be fine."
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."