HOUSTON — Just last week, the Houston Rockets were quietly creeping toward the top of the Southwest Division, winners in nine of their previous 10 games.
The reality check may have arrived.
After their worst defensive performance of the season, Houston blew a 19-point lead in San Antonio on Wednesday night to slip back down in the standings. The Rockets host Phoenix on Friday, then play six straight road games — a pivotal stretch that could go a long way in determining their season.
"It's going to be very important for us," forward Luis Scola said Thursday. "We're going to play some good teams, we're going to play them on the road, we're going to have a good, long trip and if we are able to succeed, that will be a good indication."
The Rockets started 3-10 in the wake of the ill-fated, three-way trade that would've brought Pau Gasol to town and shipped Scola, sharpshooter Kevin Martin and point guard Goran Dragic to New Orleans.
The early chaos settled, players settled into their roles and the Rockets won seven straight games in mid-January, mostly at home against teams with losing records. On paper, Houston seemed to have found its groove, outscoring opponents by an average margin of 103-95 during that stretch.
But Scola started seeing problems during a loss to Milwaukee last Wednesday, and then every little mistake the Rockets were able to overcome in their victories was exposed in a 120-108 loss to Minnesota on Monday. The Timberwolves shredded Houston's defense, scoring 42 points in the third quarter and shooting 58 percent for the game to hit a season-high point total for a Rockets opponent.
"We got some bad stretches, and we got away with some of those, and that was probably the push in momentum we were having," Scola said. "In those games, we hit a couple of shots and that covered some of our problems. You can get away with that for a couple of games, but sooner or later, when you do something wrong, repeatedly, (Monday's) game will happen."
The miserable performance led to internal sniping on the bench, and a hard practice on Tuesday with an attached and not-so-subtle theme of everyone keeping their mouths shut.
"Everybody can finger-point," first-year Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "I looked at the film twice and went over some film (Tuesday). There was enough fingers to be pointed around to everybody. You don't do that without everybody having their fingers in the pie some."
There was definite improvement on Wednesday night, when Houston held the Spurs to 16 first-quarter points on the way to building a 42-23 lead. The Rockets couldn't hold it, though, with more defensive lapses late in the game.
"You're not going to shore up everything," point guard Kyle Lowry said. "You can fix a few things, tweak a few things, get everything back to where you want it to be. But you're not going to shore them all up, because every team is different offensively, so you may have to make adjustments all the time."
The Rockets dropped to 3-6 on the road. The upcoming road slate includes a rematch with Minnesota on Saturday and games in Denver, Portland and Memphis during the following week.
Houston's opening-night roster had the lowest average time of NBA experience of any team — not to mention a new coach — and Lowry thinks the road trip offers a perfect opportunity for team growth.
"This is a time for us to get some camaraderie and all be together for a long period of time," he said. "A team always needs bonding. We've just got to go out there and we've got to do it."
Lowry shook out of a mini-slump in San Antonio, scoring 15 points with seven assists. He had only 31 total points in the previous four games on 9-for-39 shooting.
"Just got my confidence back a little bit, just got a little bit of my old self going," Lowry said.
McHale is looking for steady improvement from everyone, and he's eager to see how much the team can make on its longest road trip of the season.
"The road brings you together some," McHale said. "We've got to worry about what we're doing. We've got to get better. In this league, if you can take three or four steps forward, the step back is inevitably going to come. Why does that step back come? How can you use that step back to help you get better and move forward?
"Right now, we've got to be moving forward again," he said. "Let's give good effort every single night, and that's where we've got to get to."