HOUSTON (AP) -Wins over Orlando, Boston, Detroit and San Antonio. Losses to Memphis, Washington, Indiana and Milwaukee.
The Houston Rockets boldly talked about vying for Western Conference supremacy in the fall. So far, their season has been more mystifying than memorable.
The Rockets head into Wednesday night's game against Sacramento with a 31-21 record, only one game off last year's pace. But this season, they've been oddly enigmatic, resembling an elite team one game, an also-ran the next.
Case in point: Houston routed Minnesota 107-90 on Saturday, then looked listless in a 124-112 loss to the undermanned Bucks on Monday night.
``A couple of games, we look like a team, a very defensively sound team, the offense is running fluently,'' said Tracy McGrady, Houston's third-leading scorer. ``And then some days, we look like we don't have a clue about execution on either end. It's all about us getting on the same page. We're a weird team.''
and that had validity - they didn't have a full complement of players for practice until late last month. McGrady sat out 16 games in December and January with nagging soreness in his left knee. Shane Battier lost 22 games earlier with inflammation in his left foot. Ron Artest missed 13 games with problems with his right ankle.
Everyone is healthy now, and even though the schedule has eased up. Still, the Rockets have shown no signs of mounting a surge even approaching last year's 22-game winning streak. Their longest winning streak this season is four games, and that was before Christmas.
``I think every guy on this team has to find the identity we had last year,'' coach Rick Adelman said. ``We've lost it somewhere along the line and there's got to be an urgency to get it back.''
Yao Ming broke his foot midway through last season's run, but Houston kept winning with defense, holding opponents to 88 points per game during the streak. This season - with Yao staying mostly injury-free - the Rockets are giving up 96 points per game.
The Bucks were missing three starters on Monday night and still put up the highest point total by a Houston opponent this season.
``We just didn't defend them at all,'' Adelman said. ``Somehow, we have to find a way to do it game after game. We just keep tracking backwards all the time.''
se. The Rockets say the problems are simple: lapses of intensity that lead to breakdowns.
``That's the toughest thing I have a problem with,'' point guard Rafer Alston said, ``after 52 games, we're still searching for ways to try to compete and find energy.''
The Rockets went 55-27 last season, then acquired Artest from Sacramento in the offseason. He's Houston's second-leading scorer (15.8 points per game) behind Yao, but his impact has been more bust than boom to this point.
Artest scored 20 points against Milwaukee, but only five on 1-for-10 shooting in the Memphis loss last week. He's also been limited on defense most of the season because of a sore ankle.
Artest, the league's defensive player of the year in 2004, said McGrady and Yao - not him - must set the tone for the Rockets from here on out.
``It's going to start with Tracy,'' Artest said. ``It's going to start with guys like Michael Jordan, the Kobes and the LeBrons. When I was in Sacramento, it started with me. It'll start with your leaders, it will start with him and also Yao. Then it filters down to the other ones.''
The potential for a turnaround seems to be there.
The Rockets overcame an 11-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the Celtics on Jan. 7. Yao outplayed Dwight Howard in Orlando on Nov. 22, leading Houston to a 100-95 win over the Magic. Without McGrady, Houston handled the Spurs 103-84 on Nov. 29.
Houston also blew a 13-point, second-half lead in a loss to the Pacers on Nov. 26. They fell to the last-place Wizards a month later in Houston and now throw in double-digit losses to the Grizzlies and Bucks in the past seven days.
``I think this team really has a lot of talent to win some big games,'' Yao said. ``But, for some reason, it's not working right now.''
Even with 22 consecutive wins last season, the Rockets only secured the No. 5 seed in the West playoffs. On Tuesday, they sat in seventh place, barely ahead of Phoenix.
``This league is too good, the West is too good for you to just think you're going to turn it on at any given time,'' McGrady said. ``There are steps you have to take to get to being a great team. Right now, we've got a couple more steps we've got to take to get to that level.''

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