Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 4/12/12
HOUSTON It's never easy. The challenge is ceaseless and moments of elation cannot linger because humility always lurks around the bend. The Rockets have suffered their share of jarring wake-up calls, and they have been slapped with reminders that surrendering to complacency and fatigue often yields disappointment. They were joyous with what they accomplished in Chicago, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland, and human nature led them to ease off the throttle on Wednesday night. The injury-ravaged Jazz did not offer a surprise. Two games in the loss column separated Utah from the eighth-place Nuggets in the Western Conference playoff picture, so desperation was its traveling companion. Yet when the Jazz erased an early deficit with an avalanche of transition points, the Rockets waited too late to respond. Their 103-91 loss at Toyota Center did not undo their four-game run of road wins, but the Rockets learned an unmistakable lesson on how desire can never wane. "We pretty much knew coming out that this was going to be a game that they felt like they had to win, so we were going to get their best shot," Rockets forward Patrick Patterson said. "We were going to get their 'A' game. "We felt like we could hold our own. We couldn't tonight." With the Rockets (32-26) in sixth place in the West and the Mavericks (32-26), Nuggets (32-26), Jazz (31-28) and Suns (30-28) in dogged pursuit, there was an opportunity to build on what their road surge wrought. But perhaps that cushion was too intoxicating, because after the Rockets opened a 19-13 first-quarter lead with brilliant, unselfish offense, they relented to a team hell bent on keeping slim hopes alive. When the Rockets coast their defense is the culprit. The Jazz closed the opening period with 6-for-12 shooting and mustered 11 fast-break points. The second quarter was an exhibition of defensive lethargy with the Jazz hitting 12 of 17 shots to extend to a 56-46 halftime advantage. The Rockets' energy was sapped and their defensive assignments flubbed. Utah kept running and running with the Rockets unable to keep pace. The spunk that punctuated victories over the Bulls and Lakers was lacking, and it took far too long for the Rockets to muster that gumption. "They just played faster than we did that start," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We finally got our motor running a little bit as far as stopping that, but they came out and they played really fast. They were running through our cuts and we just seemed a half a step slow for whatever reason." When they finally decided to match the clip set by the Jazz, the Rockets did so behind Kyle Lowry, who was making his first appearance at Toyota Center since a March 4 loss to the Clippers. Lowry was three games into his return from a month-long bout with a bacterial infection when he starting throwing himself around to inspire a predictable rally. Lowry helped whittle what was an 18-point deficit with 2:02 left in the third quarter to 87-83 with a 3-pointer at the 6:20 mark of the fourth. He scored 14 points during the Rockets 21-9 run and recorded assists on the three baskets that he didn't make during that stretch. The sellout crowd chanted his name rhythmically and enthusiastically, but the hole dug was too deep. The Rockets went cold, the Jazz rebuilt its lead to double digits, and the punched-out Rockets had nothing left to give. It should not have come to this, not with the Jazz missing five rotation players and its playoff aspirations on the ropes. But the Rockets have danced with the devil before, tempting fate with unexpected losses only to follow with stunning victories. Their next four games are against opponents scrapping for postseason positioning, starting Friday night against the Suns. One win won't completely erase this misstep, but it could get the Rockets back on that dangerous track of self-adulation. "At this point the teams that we play next, Phoenix and Denver twice, it's going to be the same effort coming from those guys," Lowry said. "We're all fighting for playoff positioning, and Phoenix is fighting to get in. "So we've got to go out there and play harder and more desperate to get wins." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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