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Mired in a losing skid, Rockets take to the road vs. Bulls

Dec 23, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. (1) dribbles the ball as Dallas Mavericks forward Davis Bertans (44) defends during the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There was an opportunity facing the Houston Rockets two weeks ago, with the start of a seven-game homestand offering a glimmer of hope and a chance to build momentum as the midpoint of the schedule approaches.

Instead, the Rockets followed two surprising victories over the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns with a five-game losing skid capped by a 112-106 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

Now the Rockets will head back out on the road, opening a three-game trip on Monday against the Chicago Bulls, the first of eight road games in a 12-game stretch through Jan. 16.

Mired in last place in the Western Conference, Houston must evaluate what undermined that opportunity. Of late, fourth-quarter turnovers have been a glaring weakness, with the setback against Dallas marred by lost possessions after the Rockets cut an eight-point deficit to one.

“Our record is not well but we know when we play good and we know when we play bad,” Rockets rookie Jabari Smith Jr. said. “These last couple of games we feel like we haven’t played like us.

“It’s been difficult just because we feel like it’s all on us. We haven’t been coming out with the right mindset, the right energy.”

The assumption was that Houston would generate and maintain that energy while at home. But the second-youngest roster in the league continues to struggle with consistency, offering snapshots of promise yet seemingly unable to sustain those moments of elevated play.

Distractions are aplenty during the course of a long season, and Smith pinpointed the holiday season as just another mental obstacle for the Rockets. They will carry a losing streak on the road with them, hopeful that the solitude might provide a chance to regroup.

The Bulls have been ensnarled in conversation centered on a complete teardown. That was before Chicago won three straight games capped by consecutive buzzer-beating wins, including a 118-117 victory over the New York Knicks on Friday.

For all their shortcomings and erratic play, the Bulls entered the weekend just a half-game out of a postseason play-in spot in the Eastern Conference, even as reports emerged that the team is deciding whether Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan can iron out on-court chemistry.

Optimal health would advance any hopes the Bulls harbor of making a second-half run. They have been without Lonzo Ball all season and were without Alex Caruso, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr. against the Knicks. If that trio returns soon, perhaps the Bulls can build on their recent success.

“The way I look at it, if we handle adversity, great,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “When we play hard and we’re connected and we play together, things happen.

“I’m hopeful we can get more guys back and get healthy. Can we not take things for granted? I’m not saying these guys gave, but can we keep building to become the team we all want us to be? That takes a lot of work, communication, commitment (and) takes a lot of confrontation. There’s a lot that goes into that, so can we keep building on that?”

–Field Level Media