It’s amazing what a couple wins can do to the national perception.
In an 82-game season, there’s plenty of ups and downs, even for the good teams, so it always strikes me as knee-jerk when you hear the talking heads making demonstrative declarations using just a few games, a nationally televised contest, or a few clips from a game or games out of literally hundreds of clippable moments as evidence.
But that’s the hot take culture we have these days, and the constant need to feed the content beast in the 24/7/365 news cycle we live in creates a situation like the one we’re seeing now with the Houston Rockets.
It wasn’t that long ago (days? weeks?) that we had to endure an endless stream of Rockets and James Harden hate coming from seemingly everywhere. This barrage was despite his historic 30-point scoring streak and basically single-handedly leading the Rockets out of an 11-14 hole back into the thick of playoff contention despite injuries or turnover on dang near half of the roster, including extended absences from both Chris Paul and Clint Capela, or two-thirds of Houston’s “key three”.
Harden and the Rockets took criticism from Kobe Bryant, Scottie Pippen, and even former Rocket Tracy McGrady. The national talking heads had a field day. I’m not going get into linking or posting tweets... us Rockets fans have been reading them for weeks and I’d be here all day. But they know who they are.
And this was in spite of the fact that this team was winning. They were 21-11 during Harden’s 32-game streak, but yet it seems all we heard nationally was “Unsustainable! The Rockets will never win in the playoffs playing like this! But he travels on every play! He shoots too many free throws!” In fact, I’m not sure in my 30+ years watching the NBA and in my 15 writing about it that I’ve ever seen a superstar player on a winning team doing something historic take more flak.
The more sane among us, mostly locally, have been fighting the good fight, pleading for patience during the early struggles cautioning everyone that Harden’s ball-dominant play was mostly out of necessity due to major injured pieces and personnel adjustments. Kudos to guys like Alykhan and Kelly from The Athletic, Ben DuBose of Sportstalk 790, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle and several others for unwavering in the face of trolls, haters, and national criticism.
But something funny has happened with the Rockets in the midst of a six-game winning streak that has them suddenly tied for third in the Western Conference standings and just four games out of the second-place Denver Nuggets. The Rockets are making believers out of people.
Just a few weeks ago, a google search for Houston Rockets was loaded with criticism. But here’s just some of the articles that pop up today:
Rockets still a threat to beat Warriors - Sporting News
The Rockets are once again the primary obstacle to a Warriors repeat - UPROXX
Has Houston proved it can win the NBA Championship? - Sports Illustrated
4 reasons the Rockets look like the Warriors’ biggest competition again - SB Nation
Rockets, not the Celtics, are the biggest threat to Warriors - ESPN
Even one of the biggest Harden and Rockets haters in the media this year has suddenly done an about face (though to be fair, that’s kind of his M.O. — if you’re always pivoting, you can never truly be wrong):
At Toronto, James Harden badly outplayed No. 2, especially in the 4th quarter. And now James Harden is pulling away in the MVP race. And now the Rockets look like a real threat to Golden State.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) March 6, 2019
So what’s changed? I suppose it’s an amalgam of things. The Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder have all been slumping of late. The Rockets have been playing better defense in recent days (they are 11th in defensive rating over the last 13 games), and they’re now 28-11 since that 11-14 start that seems so long ago now. James Harden is still playing at an MVP level, and with no one else in the West looking dominant at the moment, it might be finally too much to ignore what most of us in H-town already knew: when these guys are healthy and fully locked (which they are now finally coming down the stretch), they’re awfully hard for anyone to beat, even other good teams.
Recent wins over Golden State, Toronto, and Boston have shown that Houston is often at their best against top competition, but something tells me with the fickle nature of the national media these days, we might be hearing something different should the Rockets lose tomorrow night against the Philadelphia 76ers or find themselves in a minor skid over the season’s final weeks.
The best thing we can do as fans is ignore all the bluster and trust that our heroes in red will be at their best when the most is on the line. I wasn’t exactly spot-on with my preseason prediction (oof on those Melo and Ennis takes, yikes), but I did feel that the Rockets would be the best team in the league by the end of the year, and I still feel that way today, even if we did take a few unexpected detours and some real tests of faith along the way.