The Houston Rockets have been rolling in the new year, piling up a 25-13 record that includes a recent eight-game winning streak.
Some of their stride has to do with softer scheduling, but make no mistake: These Rockets are improving. They’re getting to know each other on and off the court, and the results are more palpable with each day.
Let’s take a look at some of the top signs that the Rockets’ chemistry is coming around the bend as the playoffs near.
Previously holding the appearance of offensive afterthought in the Rockets’ running, gunning full-court style, Houston is now finding Dwight Howard for high-percentage buckets.
Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and James Harden have all become more accustomed to finding the big man in the post, rolling after a screen or even just cutting to the rim for a lob, and the NBA has once again learned to be wary of the Howard's thunderous finishing authority.
Howard being able to demand respect and attention in the half court has also led to some extra space for three-point shooters. A symbiotic balance is being struck between the various Rocket weapons, and it’s happening a bit more quickly than some of us thought it would.
James Harden and Dwight Howard are not the only men capable of leading the Rockets.
In their Feb. 23 victory over the Phoenix Suns, for instance, Patrick Beverley keyed the Houston attack with a career-high 20 points, including a clutch three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining that gave them the lead for good and two big free throws on the following possession to put the game essentially out of reach.
Sophomore big man Donatas Motiejunas also came up big for the Rockets down the stretch of the game, making key shots and free throws.
Preseason worries about this team over-leaning on superstars Howard and Harden seem to be moot, as either looks willing to hand the big moment over to one of his teammates, so long as it means winning.
The Rockets are depending less on out-voluming teams for victories, which means their mutual trust and teamwork aren't collapsing into bad iso-ball down the stretch of pressurized games.
This was an instance of exactly the kind of wrinkles they’ll need in order to hang tough with clampdown defenses like those of the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs if they’re to compete with either in the playoffs.
In the Rockets' Feb. 20 overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, the team was able to hang tough in an unexpectedly gritty, playoff-style game that squeezed both squads into the half court in crunch time.
A key part of their contention in this heartbreaking matchup was a clever, not-so-intuitive defensive switch they figured out: James Harden on David Lee.
A seeming mismatch, the move was actually a trap set by the Rockets to give Lee—and not Steph Curry or Klay Thompson—the ball repeatedly. Lee went off for 28 points, but Houston was happy to move some of the action away from Golden State's deadly perimeter, where the Rockets struggle to stop ace shooters.
This kind of tricky chess playing is clearly the result of some groupthink between a well-working roster and coaching staff.
The Rockets seem to genuinely enjoy each other these days.
Winning always helps on that front, of course, but the amount of goofballism coming out of their camp has become particularly impressive.
Take this moment of post-victory melody, in which the Rockets turn L.A.’s hate affair with Dwight Howard into a cause for sarcasm and jolliness, chanting “Howard sucks” together on the team plane.
If the age-old adage about having fun resulting in winning games is true, then Houston seems safely, soundly set for more victories.