The Houston Rockets entered the season with significantly higher expectations after acquiring Dwight Howard, and through three games, they appeared on the fast track to meeting them.
But they've since been slumping, plagued by a defense that has all but disappeared.
Facing the Toronto Raptors at home Monday night -- given their historical dominance of the series in Houston -- could help them get back on track.
The Rockets (4-3) started off their season with three straight victories fueled by strong defense. They limited opponents to 93.7 points per game and 38.7 percent shooting in those games, including a 28.8 percent clip from 3-point range.
They've lost three of four since, with opponents averaging 111.0 points on 45.2 percent field-goal shooting and 39.1 percent 3-point shooting.
"We haven't really hit a stride as a team. We're struggling. We struggle on and off but we'll win some games," coach Kevin McHale said. "We just seem out of sync a lot when we're playing and you can feel it. It feels like it's a grind. There are times when it's running smooth and we're moving. It feels good. Right now, we're just not in a good groove where we're playing well"
Houston absorbed a 107-94 home defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, five days after a 137-118 blowout loss to them. The Rockets squandered an 11-point, third-quarter lead Saturday, succumbing to an 18-0 run.
Howard had 21 points and eight rebounds, but was just 5 for 11 from the free-throw line, where he's 37 of 75 (49.3 percent) on the season. James Harden was 4 for 15 from the field for a season-low 12 points, playing despite a bruised left foot. He had averaged 26.8 points through his first six games.
But the Rockets have won their last six home meetings with the Raptors and are 15-3 all-time against them in Houston.
Toronto (3-4) is just 1/3 on the road this year, though the club ended a three-game slide overall with a 115-91 victory over winless Utah on Saturday. Tyler Hansbrough scored a season-high 23 after totaling 39 in his first six games for the Raptors.
"I thought Hansbrough was a handful," coach Dwane Casey said. "That's the kind of intensity it takes to be a winning program. What he's doing is contagious."
Kyle Lowry, the team's leader in assists (5.6 apg), didn't return after spraining his ankle on the last play of the first half. He's considered day-to-day.
"He just tweaked it," Casey said. "I think if he had to go, he'd have been OK."
The Rockets have been outrebounded in their last two games after posting a positive rebound margin in each of their first five contests. Toronto has outrebounded each opponent and leads the league at plus-7.4 per game.
Howard is averaging 24.7 points on 61.8 percent shooting in his last 18 games against the Raptors, while DeMar DeRozan is averaging 21.6 points over his last five versus Houston.