Only for now, and only by a half-game in the regular season, but for the next week and a half, the Rockets have the best record in the NBA. It’s the first time in three years the Warriors haven’t been leading the conference at this stage of the season. This is a huge accomplishment.
The Rockets are now riding their second double-digit winning streak of the season. They have still lost just one game when all three of James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela are playing. Harden is the runaway favorite for MVP: He got 91 of a possible 100 first-place votes in the Washington Post’s media straw poll for the award.
The Rockets have simply never been this good. They won back-to-back NBA championships more than 20 years ago on the back of one of the 10 greatest NBA players ever, but that team never won 60 games and never was considered a dominant force in the league. The Rockets are on pace to win 63 games, and if they can maintain their health, they will likely be the favorites in every game they play for the rest of the season.
This is unfamiliar territory. The Rockets have never been the 1-seed in the Western Conference. Never.
The Warriors will now be playing catch-up for the season’s remaining 25 games, an unfamiliar position for both teams. The Rockets have embraced the hunter mentality, zeroing in with laser focus on the Warriors up ahead. I don’t think they’ll lose that edge: they are constantly reminded that regular season success is not how they will be measured.
But that success is all the Rockets can achieve in mid-February. The team is playing the best basketball in the league. Not only have they won 10 straight games, but they have brutalized teams in most of these wins, including statement games against the Timberwolves (fourth place in the West) and Nuggets (who have won the other five of their last six games).
The Rockets’ closest games recently have been against the Kings, Mavericks, Heat and Nets, none of whom can even smell the air the Rockets are breathing. When the Rockets have had a true challenger in front of them, they have shown no mercy. In this win streak, they have beaten the Spurs, Nuggets, Wolves and Cavaliers by a combined 87 points.
The Rockets are scoring a half-point per 100 possessions less than the Warriors, according to NBA.com stats. They have the ninth-best defense in the league, allowing less than a point more per 100 possessions than the Warriors. The teams are basically identical in how thoroughly they dominate their opponents, except the Rockets are among the league’s 10 best teams at taking care of the basketball, and the Warriors are the second-worst.
The biggest difference between them this year is the Rockets have beaten the Warriors twice, and lost just once. For the first time since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors, they look vulnerable. For the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon was schooling Shaquille O’Neal in the 1995 NBA Finals, the Rockets look dominant.
Enjoy the All-Star break, Rockets fans. For this time of year, it gets no better than this.