Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 4/27/12
HOUSTON It was fitting, really, that on the night the Rockets honored their Team of the 2000s, a decade marred by agonizing near misses, they closed a third consecutive season befitting the same description. Former Rockets All-Star guard Steve Francis sat courtside with the families of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady on Thursday evening, all providing vivid reminders of just how often the Rockets came close to breaking through in the aughts. That so little has changed relative to the bottom line for the Rockets must have reverberated in the hearts of those fans that have stood steadfast in their support of this franchise. It would seem improbable for an organization to string together three successive winning campaigns only to wind up in the lottery on each occasion, but that's what the Rockets accomplished in rallying past the hapless Hornets 84-77 at Toyota Center. The Rockets (34-32), who finished 43-39 last season and 42-40 in 2009-10, will pick 14th in the NBA Draft for a third consecutive summer. After playing the role of plucky pursuers in each of the past two seasons, the Rockets were undone by a six-game losing skid that followed a four-game road win streak and dropped them out of the postseason picture. "It is frustrating," said Rockets forward Luis Scola, who along with guard Kyle Lowry are the lone holdovers remaining from the 2008-09 squad that fell to the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. "Especially this year. We had the upper hand all the way to the last week and we just couldn't do it. It's very frustrating. I want to be in the playoffs." No other headline resonates as resoundingly, not the emergence of free-agent guard Goran Dragic, the full-season debut of coach Kevin McHale, or the surprise contributions from rookie forward Chandler Parsons. Like recent iterations these Rockets overcame injuries and the loss of their starting backcourt, with Lowry (bacterial infection) and Kevin Martin (strained shoulder) missing a combined 45 games. They played through roster fluctuations, with Jonny Flynn, Jordan Hill, Hasheem Thabeet and Terrence Williams jettisoned and Marcus Camby added. The Rockets, through all their trials and tribulations, were seven games over .500 and in sixth place in the Western Conference when they returned home from a successful run through Chicago, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland. And then the bottom fell out on their season. "The only thing that sticks in my mind are those games that we lost after that streak," Rockets forward Patrick Patterson said. "We put ourselves in a great position in order to make it to the playoffs. All of a sudden, the ball went into the other court. Everything was going in the opposite direction where we couldn't seem to do anything right, we couldn't win any games." Said Dragic: "We demonstrated that we can play. We won a lot of games against all these teams that are going to fight for a championship ring. I think we should be there; we should play in the playoffs. But that's basketball. We have to bring energy, we have to fight every night, and some games we didn't do that." This victory over the Hornets (21-45) did little to lift the Rockets from their position wedged between remorse and lamentation. They made so many strides together as a youthful roster under a new coach that regressing so dramatically at such an inopportune time proved scarring. When their fate was sealed with a loss to the Heat in Miami on Sunday, attention shifted to what might be will be? - an offseason of upheaval. McHale attempted to address what could unfold next, but at this premature stage it's impossible to predict. The Rockets could willfully move several veterans and their contracts to pave the way for rebuilding around Dragic and a frontcourt featuring four players Parsons, Patterson, Chase Budinger and Marcus Morris under the age of 24. That list excludes Lithuanian forward Donatas Motiejunas, 21, their second first-round pick last summer who will debut next season. While McHale doesn't know exactly whom he will coach, the odds are good that they will be young enough that offseason development is vital. "We need a really good summer of work, and then a really big fall," McHale said. "We've got some habits (that need correcting). We didn't push the ball enough this year. Some of our guys have just got to get a little bit better at making ball-handling decisions. We became a real one-handed team and teams started really ganging up on Goran and putting big guys on him and just trying to take the ball out of his hands. During that six-game losing streak the ball ended up in a lot of guys' hands and they had to make plays. Those guys have got to be able to make plays." The Rockets' inability to make plays when pushed by desperate teams like the Jazz, Suns, Nuggets and Mavericks down the stretch left McHale with what he described as a "pit in his stomach" and unable to watch basketball on television as his team cratered. He could not escape what he witnessed on the court and there was no comfort at home away from the collapse that cost the Rockets an opportunity for postseason growth. What they endured this month was unsavory to all. That the Rockets came so close again was nothing new, with Thursday night serving as another cruel reminder of frustrations past and present. There were no cigars to be had, just another season where dreams didn't materialize. "I think we're closer this year not because of where we finished," Scola said, "but because we were really, really close this year, much closer than the last two." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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