Since the giant ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve the Rockets have gone nowhere but up.
Dwight Howard has rocked, James Harden has rolled and a team that was supposed to be still figuring it all out in its first season together suddenly looks like it has all the answers.
Now comes the test.
Call it a dirty dozen days of the schedule. Call it a magnificent seven lineup of (almost entirely) worthy opponents who’ll peel back the curtain to reveal whether the Rockets might be merely a problematic playoff hurdle or a real contender for a Finals run.
From tonight through March 16, the team with the best record in the NBA since Jan. 1 will have to deal with a grueling stretch sandwiched on either end by a home and road set with the two-time champion Heat. As if that alone were not a mouthful, there’s a good deal of meat in between. By the time the Rockets come up for air, they’ll have also faced the Pacers (No. 1 in East) and Blazers (No. 3 in West) at home and the Thunder (No. 1 in West) and Bulls (No. 3 in East) on the road. The only breather is a road game against the young and struggling Magic, but even that comes off the second night of a back-to-back after dueling the Heat.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough couple of weeks,” Harden said. “It will be a good test.”
All season long there has been a general reticence to lump the Rockets in with the so-called true championship contenders. Much of that has to do with their predilection for launching 3-pointers like they were spitballs in a grade school classroom.
But while the 3-pointer makes them wild and crazy, the truth is that the Rockets have grown into more than a novelty act that relies on the long ball and a hyper-caffeinated fast pace.
The Rockets came off their recent five-game West road trip having averaged 55.6 points in the paint per game. Then they went inside on the Pistons Saturday for another 58. It’s all the result of the work Howard has done in the practice gym to learn how to be more effective around the basket. As well, Harden’s growth curve that has turned him into the game’s best closer, regardless of any traffic or would-be defenders in the paint. Since Kevin Durant has played most of the season without Russell Westbrook and LeBron James’ help from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh comes in fits and spurts, it’s hard to argue that there is a better 1-2 punch in the league.
Not that there aren’t holes in their game. The Rockets have a penchant for running hot and cold, often unable to maintain a consistent intensity or focus. They also tend to throw the ball around, piling up careless and costly turnovers. Then there is the matter of leaving themselves vulnerable to second chance points, which squander away whatever efforts a middle of the road defensive team puts out.
All that said, the Rockets are just three games behind the Spurs for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. That’s a reachable — and desirable — goal because it would keep them out of the playoff bracket that contains the Thunder and Clippers, who have so far been insolvable (0-5).
Since the ball first went up in the season opener, Howard has been talking about the Rockets being a work in progress as he learns about his new city, his new teammates and his new role while coach Kevin McHale puts the pieces together. Even as a season-long litany of nagging injuries has healed and those pieces have come to fit, Harden has said that life has been good and comfortable in Houston below the radar.
But how long can a dark horse remain in the shadows if the spotlight starts to shine? In the next dirty dozen days, we’re about to find out.