True tests have arisen for the Houston Rockets. And for the most part, they’re passing them.
Arguably the largest was their March 4 home-court matchup against the reigning two-time champion Miami Heat, led by LeBron James. The Rockets won the game 106-103, and the victory was a study in the huge, progressive strides the team’s taken since the beginning of the season.
Projected as an outside title contender, the Rockets now look like they’re fully in the hunt.
Their whole attack has become more refined, featuring vast mixes of actions to get to their preferred result of a possession: either a short-range shot or a three-pointer. They're now learning that getting to their shots fastest doesn't always mean getting to them at the right time.
The Heat’s ferocious defense didn’t quite have the answer for Houston's array of slashers and bombers, a group led by Houston's balanced starting lineup. Terrence Jones, James Harden, Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard all scored at least 19 points in the game.
The Rockets wouldn't be exploited or outmanned by Miami's pressing, passing out of the Heat trap quickly and often finding Jones or Howard for a dunk, alternately exploiting Miami's sacrifices in coverage.
Howard and Jones are also becoming a two-headed monster on the glass. They pulled in 28 rebounds combined while the Heat had only 33 rebounds as a team (the Rockets had 46). Such an advantage, repeated elsewhere, could get the Rockets enough extra possession time to mitigate their turnover problems, as it did here.
Perhaps most important, the Rockets withstood Miami’s surge down the stretch. Houston was unfettered in its execution after a few turnover blips allowed the Heat to tie the game at 87 during the beginning of the fourth quarter. Had it not been for the unusually hot hand of Michael Beasley—who went off for a season-high 24 points—the game may not have even come down to the wire.
The Rockets showed considerable poise, keeping level when the Heat got some easy transition buckets in the fourth. Houston allowed only one turnover more than its average against Miami’s frenetically trapping defense. The Rockets weren’t flustered.
Especially not Beverley, who is quickly developing a knack for big-game theatrics. He was 5-of-8 shooting on three-pointers against Miami, and also had a game-winning three against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 23. Beverley turned the ball over just twice in 33 minutes of play and also gathered three steals and a block.
And Houston’s star scorers showed selflessness, as Harden and Parsons finished with 11 and eight assists, respectively. This is the mark of a team increasingly less concerned with who leads them and who gets the splashiest stats. Any path is fine, so long as it leads to a win.
Whether the Rockets can maintain such synergistic intensity will soon be seen.
They face a murderer’s row of playoff-quality foes this month. They are scheduled against the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and then the Heat again after squaring off with the lowly Orlando Magic on March 5. This is a stretch sure to befuddle a team that’s not for real.
But such a description doesn’t fit the Rockets. No longer the subject of questions regarding its willpower, Houston isn’t going to lose without a fight.
“The best thing to do,” Howard said after the win over the Heat, “is to stay composed.” The formerly mercurial big man sounds beyond his previous hijinks, sounds more like a source of consistent calm and savvy for his young team. His growth into a veteran’s mentality has been a presage to Houston’s overall transformation; it has become a terrifying league presence.
This is a team with great and evolving pride, hung up on its worth and eager to prove it. It is hungry, and it showed a penchant for the closer's pedal against the Heat that should bode well in the staggeringly deep Western Conference.
If you're up against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs, there's little reason to believe that you'll have an easy time winning or that you'll even win at all. No matter who you are. They're as good as it gets.