Misconceptions abound in Space City, where the Houston Rockets are both for real and reaching, uniform and untrustworthy, contenders and imitators.
Indeed, it's been difficult to gauge and understand the Rockets, who are both playing for a top-three spot in the Western Conference and trying to avoid dipping as low as sixth. Dwight Howard has been a godsend for name recognition, and James Harden continues to score and draw contact in ways only James Harden can, but the Rockets are frequently seen as a cut below elite.
Amid a five-game winning streak that included victories over the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers, the scope through which they were viewed gradually began to change. But the Rockets followed that up with losses to the struggling Oklahoma City Thunder, resilient Chicago Bulls and revenge-seeking Heat, leaving a trail of nettled- and confused-looking faces in their wake.
In turn, belief in the Rockets and their immediate postseason chances remains conditional, mostly because they're still chasing the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Thunder. Each of those teams is considered more trustworthy. Their cores have been together longer and in San Antonio's case, are far more established and accustomed to the grind of playoff basketball.
Yet the stigma that the Rockets somehow aren't good enough to compete in the glorified Western Conference is grossly exaggerated and wholly absurd. Whether it's because they're still the newfangled superteam on the West's crowded block or because the image of last season's one-way juggernaut is still fresh in most minds, the Rockets have been downplayed unjustly.
Reading into winning streaks or lone games is impulsive and paves the way for inaccurate takes. But it works both ways. The Rockets aren't perfect or even the best team out West, but they have the crew, strength and manageable weaknesses to make a legitimate title push.
"I want to win a championship and it’s easier said than done," Harden said of Howard, via The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "Him being here is definitely the right step."
Yes, yes it is.
Harden continues to score in excess, Howard looks more athletic, Chandler Parsons remains a stud, Jeremy Lin has looked pretty good in a sixth-man capacity and Terrence Jones' progress is worthy of celebration. With no shortage of threats to score, the Rockets are picking up right where they left off last season, posting the league's fifth-best offensive rating.
Unlike last year, though, when their high-powered offense was met with porous defense, the Rockets have lines of prevention.
Omer Asik wasn't enough to boost the team's defensive credibility on his own, but Howard knows no such limitations. The Rockets rank 12th in defensive efficiency, leaving them as one of only six teams—Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors, Spurs, Thunder and Clippers—to appear in the top 12 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The last team to win a championship while also ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, so the fact that the Rockets can even contend with such an idea bodes well for their impending playoff push.
Helping them further is collectively favorable health bills. Injuries to Patrick Beverley have limited their primary starting lineup to just 31 games, but their Big Three of Harden, Howard and Parsons has appeared in 52 of the team's 67 contests, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
Better still, Harden and Howard have seen 58 games together, with neither having missed more than eight contests.
Can the Spurs claim similar health for their best players after watching Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili battle ailments? Or the Golden State Warriors, who have lost Andre Iguodala on multiple occasions? Or the Thunder, who have played extensively without Russell Westrook, or the Clippers, who saw Chris Paul miss plenty of time?
The absences that other teams have battled don't necessarily put them at a significant disadvantage, but health is one thing the Rockets haven't had to worry about much, which, when coupled with their newly balanced attack, certainly doesn't hurt them.
They've also lost back-to-back games just five times this season, and their longest losing streak stands at three. That has to count for something.
A whole lot, actually.
This isn't to say there aren't flaws in Houston.
For starters, the Rockets bench is fairly week. HoopStats.com uses an Efficiency Recap Difference, which accurately measures how a team's bench fares against opponents. The Rockets' bench has a rating of minus-6.6, tying them with the Blazers for the NBA's sixth-worst mark.
Their record against current Western Conference playoffs teams doesn't help them either. The Rockets are 12-12 against the conference's top eight factions, which isn't spectacular.
On the bright side, they are a combined 6-1 against the Spurs and Blazers. With how the playoff picture is shaping up, those could very well be the Rockets' first two opponents—assuming they make it out of the first round.
If their path to the Western Conference Finals is paved in Blazers- and Spurs-tinged jerseys, and they manage to squeak by each of them, there's no telling what happens from there.
For Real and En Route
Quite obviously, the ideal playoff path isn't necessarily likely. But it doesn't have to be.
Point is, the Rockets have the means to make some noise, some seriously, eardrum-rupturing championship noise.
"They are beating good teams and are heading into the playoffs on a high note," Rick Fox said of the Rockets while on NBA TV, via Ultimate Rockets' David Barron. "They are a much better team than they were last year, which has a lot to do with Dwight Howard, but they have also just improved and matured."
Mature to the point of title favorites?
Not at all.
But mature and lethal enough to gut their reputation and standing of misconceptions, because make no mistake, they're neither imitators nor reaching.
The Rockets are real, and they're coming.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.