HOUSTON — When the Rockets wore down and sprinted past the creaking Celtics, it was youth over age.
When Jeremy Lin recreated the old magic at Madison Square Garden and the Rockets wore out the Knicks, it was hope over their own struggles.
When James Harden made it all look easier than a walk in the park in a thumping of the Grizzlies, it was speed over power.
Now after winning five of their past six games, the Rockets have to prove they are as much substance as style.
While hanging around the .500 mark (14-12) through the first third of the season, this totally reconstructed Houston lineup has been equal parts entertaining and unfulfilling.
So as they enter the meat of the schedule, our very good buddy Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle notes this might be as good a time as any to determine whether the Rockets are legitimate playoff contenders in the Western Conference.
Beginning with the Christmas Day game in Chicago, the Rockets will play four games in five days, facing the Bulls, Timberwolves, Spurs and Thunder. Only the final game of that stretch, against Oklahoma City (21-5), will come at home.
“This road trip is key for us,” guard James Harden said. “It will be a good test having three games on the road against really good teams. In order for us to make the playoffs, we’re going to have to win some road games, and this is the time. I think we’re on a roll now as far as us playing together, so this is going to be big for us.”
Assuming some of that stretch will be difficult, the Rockets said they are better prepared for what will come than they were a week ago, when they crumbled.
“We are different,” guard Jeremy Lin said. “We made some big differences in terms of figuring out what works with our identity and what doesn’t work. A week ago, I would say we were not as sure of what to do as we are now.”
Since returning from his leave of absence two weeks ago, coach Kevin McHale has repeatedly stressed that the young Rockets lineup has to remain committed to the team’s up-tempo style of play.
“Every team has a style,” McHale said. “A lot of teams are trying to find that style. Once you find what works, you have have to be dedicated to doing it.
“I liken back to the old Hakeem Olajuwon days. The team didn’t one day say, ‘We’re never going to throw the ball to Hakeem tonight. We’re going to ice him out. We’re just going to shoot jumpers.’ They threw the ball to him every single time. That was their style.
“As a team, we’ve got to find our footing where we play the same every night. We may not shoot it as good and may not do a lot of stuff, but we have to play the same style.”
That is, besides pushing the tempo, sharing the ball, moving it side to side to create open jump shots and open lanes for Harden and Lin to drive through.
Since losing at Toronto eight days ago, the Rockets have averaged 118 points, 25 fast break points per game and hae made 53.6 percent. In Saturday night’s whipping of Memphis, they assisted on a season-high 32 of 44 field goals.
But now Houston starts a difficult week with a Christmas night game at Chicago, where the Bulls rank third in the NBA defensively, allowing 90.3 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting and 32.6 percent 3-point shooting.
The Bulls are quite good at stifling opponents’ pace by playing solid half-court defense and having the hyperactive Joakim Noah blow up the pick and roll and many attempts in the lane.
Often this season when they’ve been slowed down and forced to play deliberately, the Rockets have deteriorated into a group of individuals that stand and eventually tried to do too many things 1-on-1.
They say they’ve grown. They say they’ve changed. They say they are for real.
Now they are staring at a short, difficult window — four games in five nights, ending with OKC at home — to prove it.