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After uneven start, Rockets rounding into elite form

Two big wins have Houston on the upswing.

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets have historically been slow starters since head coach Mike D’Antoni took over ahead of the 2016-2017 NBA season.

In that first year, the Rockets got off to an uneven 6-5 beginning, and there were definitely some early negative rumblings, especially for a fan base not yet sold on the D’Antoni hire. But the team settled in and won 55 games, before eventually losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.

In the famed 65-win 2017-2018 NBA season, the Rockets started off just 5-3 on the year and even suffered a five-game losing streak before the new year before James Harden’s MVP season and Chris Paul’s full acclimation sparked a torrid second-half-of-the-season run that didn’t end until Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State.

Last season, the team really flubbed the beginning of the year, starting off 1-5, and at 25 games in, they were just 11-14. That group turned it around and won 53 games before again falling to Golden State, this time in the semis.

So it shouldn’t have been any real surprise this season when the team, trying to fit in new major piece Russell Westbrook, once again had an uneven start to the year. They began 3-3 and despite an eight-game win streak and decent-enough records at 11-6 and 15-8, didn’t look exactly right.

They developed a nasty habit of playing down to teams and losing to squads they should beat, and even though it’s happened again during this recent good stretch (Golden State on Christmas, the Detroit Pistons 11 days before that), the Rockets appear to have turned a corner after back-to-back victories over the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, two teams with a combined 47-25 record (.652 win percentage).

The team now stands at 24-11, which is a 56-win pace, and after losses last night by both the Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets are tied with Denver for the number two spot in the Western Conference, just four games back of the Los Angeles Lakers for the conference’s top spot (and not to toot my own — though I’m about to — I picked the Rockets for 57 wins and the number two spot in the West in the SB Nation league-wide preview piece at the beginning of the year — keep it going, boys).

And there’s no doubt this feels like a team on the upswing. James Harden is playing the best ball of his career, racking up his best shooting percentages (46.3 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from deep) since he was Sixth Man of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the most points per game in the league (38.4) since Wilt Chamberlain in 1961.

Russell Westbrook’s counting stats are mostly down, and though there’s been some rough moments, he’s brought an added dimension to Houston’s attack, as Isaac outlined in his stellar video from earlier this week. He’s looking more and more comfortable by the game.

Clint Capela has been playing some of his best ball since Houston’s 65-win season, averaging a career-high 14.2 rebounds per game, good enough for third overall in the NBA. His defense has been slowly reverting to his fantastic 2017-2018 levels as well, as he currently sports the second-highest defensive plus-minus of his career, and he’s coming off of a game in which he dominated Joel Embiid, putting 30 and and 14 on the star center for the 76ers and helping to hold him to just 7-17 shooting.

Eric Gordon is back in action after missing 23 games with an injury, and though he has yet to fully hit his stride, just having him back on the court has made a huge difference in Houston’s spacing and offensive attack.

P.J. Tucker is averaging a career-high in rebounds (7.3) and field goal percentage (.476), while averaging his most points per game since 2015. He’s shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc. His defense has been slightly less effective from a defensive box standpoint, but he can still guard practically any player on the floor. Though he could probably use a few less minutes (36 per game, also a career high).

On top of that, other ancillary players, like Ben McLemore, who’s having the best year of his career, and Danuel House, who’s having a breakout, have been contributing, while the Rockets are also getting some valuable minutes from youngster Isaiah Hartenstein.

Yes, the team is rounding into shape and starting to look like a legit contender. But there’s still going to be some growing pains.

Keeping the right amount of good Russ and limiting his bad decisions is likely to be a season-long process. Keeping minutes at a manageable load, particularly for guys like Harden and Tucker, is also a process. The Rockets could use another wing on the trade or buyout market to help with this. And they really have to end that bad habit of losing to inferior teams. Losses to the Warriors, Spurs, Kings, and Pistons are really making a difference in the standings. Win those four like they were supposed to and they’d be tied with the Lakers right now for the West’s top seed.

But Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni are fond of letting us know this is a season-long journey. There is still more work to do, but as the calendar has flipped to the new year, the Rockets are looking more and more like the team we hoped they could be.