After struggling to find consistency throughout the first two months of the season, the Houston Rockets seem to have turned things around as of late. The team has won five of its last six games, with its lone loss coming at the hands of a tough Cleveland Cavaliers squad. The defense, which had been the bane of the club’s existence all year, looks much improved. Center Dwight Howard, whose health and happiness (or lack thereof) became a hot topic at times, is starting to show his old form as his involvement in the offense increases.
The loss to Cleveland ended a season-best five-game winning streak, which included four straight victories over teams currently in playoff contention: two against the Utah Jazz, a win over the Indiana Pacers at home and a roadie over the Memphis Grizzlies. Prior to losing to LeBron James and Co., Houston guard James Harden marveled at the strides his team made in recent weeks, per ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins:
“We’re playing a lot better than a month ago. So that feeling is different. Now we got to figure out how to be on the same page at all times. These last few games have offered some tests, we’ve been through some adversity and we figured it out together against some good teams. Hopefully we can keep that streak going on.”
Sadly, the old Rockets reared their ugly head in a lopsided 91-77 loss to the defending Eastern Conference champs. The team turned the ball over 18 times, with The Beard’s eight mistakes leading the way. They also struggled to put the ball in the basket, converting just 24 percent from three and a mere 35.1 percent overall.
Still, the sloppy loss shouldn’t offset what Houston has accomplished since the start of 2016. The defense, which was 29th in efficiency under former coach Kevin McHale (106.5, to be exact), is at 104.9 now (21st in the league). After routinely allowing opponents to surpass the century mark, the team has given up more than 100 points just three times in its last seven games. They held the Cavs team playing with practically a full house (minus Mo Williams) to 91 points and 39.1 percent shooting from the field. Next, Harden and Co. draw a Los Angeles Lakers team that hasn’t dropped triple-digits since Jan. 9.
The team is also getting steady production from Howard, who was hampered in the early part of the season by back and knee problems. After missing five of the team’s first 14 games, D12 has sat once since Dec. 4 (the second half of a back-to-back against Utah on Jan.7). In his last eight games, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is averaging 19.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. He’s also notched a double-double in every contest during that span. The 30-year-old is putting up 10.3 shots per game in January after averaging just over eight attempts per game in the first two months.
In addition to Howard’s resurgence, the once-aloof Harden is re-asserting himself as the team’s alpha dog, per Watkins.
“Patience, just testing my leadership, testing everything, me as a basketball player,” Harden said. “[Asking myself] ‘Am I built for this?’ I know I am. There are a lot of tests I’ve been put through in these last three or four years, not a lot of people can get through. Me being a strong-minded individual that I am, being surrounded by some really good people, I just continue to work through it and fight through it and good things will happen.”
While the Rockets’ ability to pick themselves off the mat is encouraging, they still have a long way to go. Injuries still hinder the roster, particularly in the frontcourt with forwards Donatas Motiejunas and rookie Sam Dekker. Turnovers are also a problem, as only the lowly Philadelphia 76ers commit more nightly errors than Houston’s 16.2 per game. Howard, for one, isn’t satisfied with being a “middle of the pack team”, per Watkins:
“We got to decide what we’re going to do. Middle of the pack doesn’t sound good, neither does it look good. It doesn’t sound good saying it, and you don’t want to be in that position where you’re saying ‘We’re a middle-of-a-pack team’. That’s not what we expect. That’s not how we should play, like a middle-of-a-pack team. We’ve got to get better at that and we’ve got to do it together.”
The last time Houston had a multi-game win streak come to a halt was on Dec. 23, when the Orlando Magic stopped the team’s three-game run. The Rockets proceeded to lose five of its next six, punctuated by an embarrassing 121-103 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. The true test of how much Houston has changed since then will be how they respond to being humiliated by Cleveland. They have some favorable matchups (@Lakers, @Clippers, vs. Pistons, vs. Bucks, vs. Mavs, @Pelicans) before closing out the month with another tough stretch (@Spurs, @Thunder, vs. Wizards).
The good news is the Rockets have cleared some of the hurdles that plagued them early on. The Cavs loss was proof the team still has work to do before returning to contender status, but for now, it appears Houston has turned a very important corner.