James Harden, Houston Rockets Peaking at the Perfect Time

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 25, 2013

Feb 20, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) reacts after scoring a basket during the first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off an emotional 96-95 win over the San Antonio Spurs, James Harden and the Houston Rockets appear to be peaking at just the right time.

Winners of five out of their past six games, Houston has cut the Golden State Warriors' lead for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoff race to just a half-game.

But before we look deeper into what the Rockets' latest surge means for the playoff picture, it's worth rehashing the play that might be remembered as the moment Houston went from being a nice story to a legitimate postseason threat.

In the waning seconds of a tight contest that Houston nearly let slip away, Harden put his team on his back. He scored or assisted on the Rockets' final nine points and hit what turned out to be the game-winning jumper with less than five seconds remaining.

It was a remarkable play, but it couldn't have happened without help from an unlikely source: the Rockets defense.

Patrick Beverley's huge swat of a Danny Green layup with 1:23 remaining led to a Chandler Parsons three-pointer that cut the Spurs lead to one. It was a critical stop, and one that was emblematic of the changes that have taken place in Houston since the season began.

Rightly known as a team whose main goal is outscoring the opposition, the Rockets have quietly transformed themselves into a solid defensive outfit over the past few weeks. During the month of March, Houston has posted a defensive efficiency rating of 99.5, which is the first time in any full month this year that the Rockets have allowed fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions.

That might not seem particularly impressive, but when you consider that the Rockets have been putting up an offensive rating of 109.3 in March, it's easy to see why they've been piling up the victories as of late. The resultant differential of plus-9.8 points per 100 possessions in March is nearly double the Rockets' second-best monthly figure of plus-five, which they posted in February.

Obviously, team success doesn't come without individual effort. And the Rockets have gotten a couple of big ones this month from two of their best players.

Unsurprisingly, James Harden has been dominant in March, averaging 25.9 points per game, shooting nearly 45 percent from long range and getting to the line 12.5 times per contest.

But Houston's second fiddle has consistently been Chandler Parsons, who has hit nearly 51 percent of his shots and posted the team's second-highest plus-minus figure this month. His plus-6.9 mark trails only Harden's plus-8.3 in March.

Parsons' ability to slash and space the floor has opened up the lane for Harden to do what he does best: barrel into the paint.

In looking at the total picture, these last two aspects—defense and scoring from players besides Harden—are what make the "new" Rockets so dangerous. Opponents have known for some time that they can't blink against Houston's high-octane attack, but now it's getting harder to know where the damage will come from.

In addition, the Rockets are no longer a pushover on the defensive end. So when exactly are opposing teams going to be able to catch their breath against Houston now?

As a playoff matchup, Houston could be a real nightmare for any of the high seeds it's likely to face. With wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and now the Spurs in their most recent meetings, the Rockets look like a team capable of taking on just about anybody right now.

With a rough stretch ahead that features three playoff opponents in four days, the Rockets will certainly be tested. But with a hugely satisfying win over a hated rival under their belts, the Rockets are riding high right now.