As one of the top three teams in the Western Conference for the majority of the season, the Houston Rockets have been labeled by most of the national media as a team that is more of a pretender than a championship contender in 2015.
The media can't argue with the facts, though: the Rockets are one-and-a-half games out of the 2-seed despite
- Missing their second best player (Dwight Howard) for most of the season,
- That Patrick Beverley has been masquerading as a point guard for a majority of the year and
- Five of their key pieces (Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni) haven't even been on the team for a full season
Howard has missed the last 15 games for the Rockets. He's not only the Rockets' best post defender and interior rebounder, but also the Rockets best defender and rebounder in general. Can the Rockets win a title without him?
That the Rockets are 11-4 in these 15 games is amazing. Their defense over this period of time is also solid, holding teams on average to 97.6 points per game. It's not like Donatas Motiejunas is even doing a great job as a serviceable replacement for Howard on the defensive end either. D-Mo has a 104 defensive rating so far this season (his best ever), but it isn't quite as good as the 100 Howard has been posting this year.
A lot of this is matchup-dependent. If the Rockets draw Memphis or a healthy Golden State, then Howard would be a necessity.
Kevin McHale couldn't rely on a tandem of D-Mo and Joey Dorsey to contain Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph or Andrew Bogut in a seven game series. Bogut is not a focal point of the Warriors offense, but in matchups where he has an advantage he can dominate the paint, force defenses to collapse to him and that leaves Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson open for three-pointers.
If the matchup were to be a team like Dallas or Oklahoma City, the Rockets could get away with playing D-Mo on Enes Kanter or Steven Adams. The big guys in the paint aren't ever going to be the focus on their offense and with OKC, they'll probably forget that Kanter or Adams are on their team.
Outside of Tyson Chandler does Dallas even have a center?
Of course you are all familiar Portland and Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers with DeAndre Jordan, who can be a pest in his own right, the potential of a date with Anthony Davis in the first round and then there are the San Antonio Spurs and that is always an all-hands-on-deck situation.
Where is the success coming from though? Could it be that Kevin McHale is actually doing a better job coaching this season compared to last? This is easily his best in-season coaching job to date.
In the playoffs last season, he was thoroughly out-coached by Terry Stotts, so it might be best if we reserved judgment until this April when he has to potentially take on Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle.
Of course, what do I know about coaching?
Then you may have noticed this Tweet that the Rockets tweeted out yesterday afternoon:
The Rockets are 8-0 in games in which @TerrenceJones1 has started this season.— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) March 2, 2015
Now this I had not been aware of. Since coming back from his knee injury, Terrence Jones has been playing the best basketball of his career. Granted, these are just the last four games so the sample size can be contained in a jar, but Jones has been averaging 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, two blocks while shooting just over 60 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from the free throw line.
This is a huge improvement across the board from not only his season numbers, but his career numbers. I don't think this is just a passing instance either. I think this is going to be the new normal with Jones.
There is a certain thing in player that you just notice when it clicks in them. I think it has clicked in him. He's a lot more patient with the ball in both passing and shooting. He's a beast on the boards now, those loose balls are his and he'll kill you if you get near them.
Also, look at the way he carries himself now compared to earlier in the season or even last year. His eyes are focused, his head is up, shoulders are not slouched; he's confident. He's gone into an alpha mode, but still knows this is Harden's team.
All championship teams have players that know their roles. Look at the all the title teams in, well ever. Rarely will you see a struggle at the top of the hierarchy for shots, acclaim, etc. Those teams usually fall to the wayside early in the playoffs, the teams with the chemistry, the teams with defined roles, the teams with the fire and passion to win are the ones that are playing into June.
There were some issues with the chemistry last year. Have they all been solved? On the surface, yes.
You'll even notice that guys are hustling more to one another to help each other up on the floor, supporting more in the huddles and after bad plays. Adding a veteran like Trevor Ariza and subtracting a Chandler Parsons is a big reason for this.
This is for sure not your Stevie Franchise or T-Mac Houston Rockets. I'm starting to see some resemblance of the 1994 and 1995 NBA Champion Houston Rockets in this team. That victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers yesterday for sure gave me flashbacks.
Yes, this Rockets team has holes, both at point guard and in the shape of Dwight Howard. But they are close to Top 10 in offensive efficiency and comfortably Top 10 in defense. They have shown the ability to beat any team in the league, save for the Warriors. And they have the best basketball player on the planet at the moment.
The Rockets aren't waiting for Dwight Howard. They look like they have what it takes to make a run at the Finals right now.