The Houston Rockets continued a slow ascent by posting a 107-104 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night. The red and yellow boys have inched their record to 21-19 and sit in the back half of the Western Conference playoff picture just before the halfway point in the season.
The win puts the Rockets on a five-game win streak ahead of a Friday night showdown with LeBron James and the Eastern Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers, who are on their own eight-game win streak ahead of a game with the San Antonio Spurs. Neither team has faced significantly stiff opposition on their respective tears: Cleveland dispatched of Dallas, Orlando and Indiana while Houston has defeated Utah (twice), Memphis, Indiana and Minnesota.
Cleveland is relatively healthy and have hit an on-court stride worthy of NBA envy. The Rockets will have the benefit of a day of rest while facing an opponent playing the second night of a back-to-back. But even with a bit of schedule help, it's going to be a tough game.
Ahead of Friday's game, the most frustrating reality for Rockets fans is that both of these statements are true: The Houston Rockets are on a five-game win streak. The Houston Rockets barley dispatched the Timberwolves (3 points), Pacers (overtime) and Jazz (2 points).
The Rockets are playing arguably their best stretch of basketball this season. Anchored by Dwight Howard's seven straight double doubles, Houston has found wins behind James Harden's offense and steady contributions from the rest of the squad which had been missing for most of the season.
Grit defined their overtime win against the Pacers and they've managed to look like last year's Rockets. The team has almost rediscovered an ability to find wins when their game plan isn't working. Example: Houston beat Minnesota despite shooting 23.3% from three on the night while getting out-rebounded.
Take a look at a comparison of advanced metrics for the season and the last five games.
On the season:
Houston Offensive Rating: 103.7
Houston Defensive Rating: 105
Houston Net Rating: -1.3
Houston Pace: 99.12
Over the five game win streak:
Houston Offensive Rating: 108.1
Houston Defensive Rating: 101.5
Houston Net Rating: 6.5
Houston Pace: 93.46
For the uninitiated: Offensive and defensive rating are the points scored or allowed per 100 possessions. Net rating is the difference between the offensive and defensive numbers. Pace is the number of offensive possessions per 48 minutes.
During the win streak the Rockets are outperforming their season average on offense and defense and surprisingly doing it with less offensive possessions. Scoring is up by 4.4 points per 100 possessions while opponents have been held to 3.5 less points per 100 possessions. The Rockets have built a net swing of 7.8 points between the season and the last five games. Doing this while pace is down means the team is playing more efficiently. They're finding easier baskets and making more of their shots. Both positive trends when you're on a collision course with a team seemingly bound for the NBA Finals.
While the metrics look good over the past two weeks you've got to ask a gut check question... Is a team that beat the Timberwolves by three points ready to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Against the Timberwolves the Rockets surrendered 9 turnovers in the first quarter. The Wolves failed to feast on those turnovers, but that's a situation you can't surrender to Cleveland, Golden State or San Antonio. You're going to have a bad time.
Despite building a ten point lead, the Rockets let the Timberwolves claw their way back to a tie game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. There was no killer instinct from the Rockets to put the Timberwolves away. They let an aged Kevin Martin step on them in the fourth quarter and let their offense become awash with laze and disinterest.
Until Minnesota went to Hack-a-Capela and the Rockets got angry, it was Kevin Martin and Andrew Wiggins who looked ready to win last night's game, not James Harden.
The case can be made that the Rockets were only in this situation because of their poor three-point shooting (23.3% on the night) and that two more made threes would have kept the game from ever being a contest. But you've got to raise an eyebrow at the Pacers' ability to take the Rockets to overtime and the Jazz putting the Rockets on the ropes for a two point game.
It's tough to make the connection between winning one-basket games with Utah and Minnesota and wrangling LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
On Friday night we'll see which team the Rockets are.