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How exactly are the Rockets near the top of the West?

The Houston Rockets sat at 14th place in the West 25 games into the season.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve looked at the Western Conference standings lately and wondered, “How exactly are the Houston Rockets competing for the third seed?,” you’re not alone.

For a long time, it’s felt like all the Rockets have done is struggle and claw just to keep themselves above water and get decent position for the post-All-Star playoff push. That’s mostly true. The Rockets have clawed and fought and even struggled, but they’ve done more than just stay afloat - they were successful during the most improbable period of their season.

On Dec. 8, the Rockets were at their lowest point. Houston was sitting at 11-14 after having dropped a poorly managed game in Dallas and was in 14th place in the West. While they were able to string together a five-game winning some time during the season up until that point, they also had two four-game losing streaks and a three-game losing streak under their belt. Carmelo Anthony and the team had fallen out a month before, Michael Carter-Williams wasn’t getting minutes, and James Ennis had already shown signs that he wasn’t going to work in Houston.

The writing was on the wall for the Rockets to enter a true free fall. Couple the above trouble with the eventual significant time missed by Chris Paul and Clint Capela, and it’s even more puzzling how the success has happened.

A quick breakdown of how the Rockets looked with and without their keys players up until this point: With Harden, Paul, and Capela healthy from Dec. 11 until Dec. 20, the Rockets went 5-1. With only Harden and Capela healthy from Dec. 22 to Jan. 13 (Eric Gordon also out from the Dec. 31 to Jan. 14), the Rockets went 8-3. With only Harden healthy from Jan. 14 to Jan. 25, the Rockets went 4-2. From Paul’s return (without Capela) on Jan. 27 until Feb. 13, the Rockets went 5-4. Now in the final stretch of the season with all three players healthy, the Rockets lost their first game following the All-Star break, only to reel off six-straight wins.

During this time, the Rockets turned out the second-best win record in the NBA at 28-11 - second only to the Bucks’ record of 31-8 and just ahead of the Warriors’ 26-11. Things were never actually as bad as they seemed, and the Rockets were consistently more up than they were down. For Rockets fans, and probably everyone else, the interest was way more day-to-day for the Rockets, so stretches of losses were given more focus than the overall record at hand.

And to his credit, Daryl Morey refusing to stop being active and making moves also helped the Rockets when they needed it most.

Paul’s first game out was on Dec. 22, and Austin River’s first game for Houston was on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. The first five games with Rivers on the team resulted in a five-game winning streak, and Houston went 9-4 from his inception until the addition of Kenneth Faried. Capela went down on Jan. 13 and in comes the Manimal on the Jan. 21. Even though Houston lost its first game with Faried in the lineup, they’d win 3 straight and 7 of their next 10.

Broken down, it can sound a lot less romantic than what it actually is: “Oh, players went down, and Houston made some moves to pick up the slack.” In reality, that’s not actually the case. The reality is that Houston went a large stretch without all three of its best players on the court, and two players who could somewhat replicate the missing stars’ contributions were added to support James Harden, a man who seemed to be possessed by the basketball gods, or devil, themselves.

Without that stretch of games, there is no way that Houston is in the position that it’s in now. From Dec. 22 until Feb. 13, the Rockets were playing with a max of two of their three best players.

The good news is that Capela hasn’t missed a beat after his thumb injury. Even though he’s averaged only 11.1 points since his return - mostly all due to teams restricting Harden’s access to him - he’s shooting 64.8-percent from the floor and grabbing 12.3 rebounds a game, also propelling Houston to its best defense of the season.

Paul’s play is also on the rise these past seven games. His shooting percentage is still hovering around his season average 42-percent, but he’s scoring 16.7 points a game, a point more than his season average. Paul’s also averaged 10 assists a game over this stretch, nearly 2 more than his season average, and is creating more for his teammates.

The Rockets are coming off two huge wins against the Celtics and the Raptors, showing they can hang in there with the upper echelon of the NBA when they’re healthy. At 39-25, they’re only 4 games back of the Nuggets for the second seed and are a half game back of OKC and the same ahead of Portland. Hopefully, Houston can continue on this run and maintain home court advantage come playoffs.