Houston clinched a spot in the playoffs by pulling off perhaps its best win of the season. With no Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, the Rockets eked out a 111-107 victory over the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder.
Prior to this most recent loss, OKC had Houston's number with decisive wins in the teams' three previous meetings. The upset gives the Rockets a nice momentum boost as the postseason draws closer.
Good win tonight fellas!!! #RedNation— Isaiah Canaan (@SiP03) April 5, 2014
As of April 4, the Rockets hold down the fourth spot in the Western Conference standings. They trail the Los Angeles Clippers by three games for the third spot and hold a two-game lead over their potential first-round opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Rockets have a few things working in their favor that make them dark-horse championship contenders. When Howard returns from his ankle troubles, he gives Houston a formidable trio that also includes forward Chandler Parsons and guard James Harden.
Together, the triumvirate make up 59.9 of the team's 106.8 points per game (third in the NBA). Howard is also a big reason behind the Rockets' dominance on the glass. His 12.3 boards per game (fourth-best in the league) leads a unit that is fourth in the NBA in rebounding (45.1 RPG).
However, the Rockets have a couple of other subtle factors that could work in their favor.
The Omer Asik Factor
Since the beginning of the season, center Omer Asik has been Houston's ace in the hole. If the Rockets could keep the Turkish 7-footer healthy and happy, they would have a tremendous advantage in the frontcourt.
After all, it's one thing to have the league's best center in Dwight Howard leading the attack down low. When you throw in someone as good on the glass and at protecting the rim as Asik, the result could be disastrous for opposing offenses.
The initial plan was to play Asik and Howard together to give Houston a formidable presence inside.
It didn't quite work out that way, though. Asik spent the brunt of the year sulking and injured on the trading block while second-year man Terrence Jones took over the power forward spot. As we all know, the team was unsuccessful in moving Asik, while Jones emerged as one of the league's rising stars.
After missing two months with knee and thigh injuries, Asik returned to the floor in mid-February. After a few weeks of working himself back into shape, it seems he's finally found his groove.
While Howard has missed seven of the team's last nine games with an ankle injury, Asik has filled in admirably. During those seven starts, the 27-year-old is averaging 10.7 points and 12.1 rebounds. Those numbers are similar to what Asik produced during a full season as a starter last year (10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds).
The most impressive of those seven performances came against the Brooklyn Nets on April 1. Even though Houston lost, Asik made his presence felt with 12 points, a career-high 23 rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
Here's a highlight reel of Asik's dominance that night:
The biggest thing that stands out throughout the clip is how the big man overpowers his adversary when fighting for position under the basket. He alternates between using his large frame to box out and just plain stiff-arming guys out of his way.
You hardly see any of the Nets' big men getting in front of Asik when he's in the paint. That big body came in handy on the defensive end as well. At the 1:30 mark, he blocks Miles Plumlee's weak attempt near the basket.
Ten seconds later, Shaun Livingston tries to test Asik inside but has his shot sent away as well.
Asik is no longer one of the league's best-kept secrets. Opposing teams know what he brings to the table. He's a superb defender and rebounder who doesn't offer much on the offensive end.
However, the world hasn't seen enough of Asik and Howard playing together to get an idea of how well it will work or how to defend against it. The Rockets pulled the plug on the tandem early in the season, and injuries have hindered the duo from building any chemistry together.
Once Howard comes back, his fresh legs will coincide with Asik finally playing with some purpose. A motivated Asik helps Houston out tremendously. The Rockets could play him and Howard together during close stretches as well as sub Asik in for Howard without the interior defense taking a hit.
It's an edge that Houston has waited all season to unleash.
The Other Guys
The Rockets notched the 10th 50-win season in franchise history thanks to a strong core and in spite of a second unit that has struggled to provide an offensive spark. However, while Houston may lack the depth it appeared to have on paper earlier in the year, there's still plenty of potential unsung heroes on the roster.
Power forward Terrence Jones and point guard Patrick Beverley, who are the less heralded members of Houston's vaunted starting rotation, have the most breakout potential of the team's "other guys."
Beverley made a name for himself in last year's playoffs when his aggressive defense cost Russell Westbrook his meniscus and helped make Houston's series with Oklahoma City somewhat competitive.
This time around, it's Beverley nursing the bum knee. The Arkansas product suffered a torn meniscus of his own on March 27 against Philadelphia. Initially feared to be done for the season, Beverley now expects to be back sooner than expected, according to a tweet from Fox 26's Mark Berman.
Pat Beverley says he will be back on the court playing "before the playoffs."— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) April 3, 2014
"I will be back soon," Beverley said while in attendance of the University of Houston's unveiling of Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson as its new head coach (per Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech).
Beverley is doing a lot of jumping up and down and seems pretty sturdy on his knee... so that's a good sign.— Jenny Dial Creech (@jennydialcreech) April 5, 2014
As for Jones, the 22-year-old out of Kentucky has been solid as the team's fourth or sometimes fifth option on the floor. He's averaging 11.7 points, seven rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He's had flashes of brilliance this season, including an impressive performance in the team's upset over Oklahoma City (16 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, two assists and two steals).
What makes Jones such a sneaky weapon for the Rockets is he fills all of the blanks. He can crash the boards. He's a solid defender and, as Utah's Jeremy Evans can attest, a surprisingly good ball-handler for a big guy. Most importantly, he can score from numerous spots on the court.
As you'll see from his shot chart, Jones is most effective near the basket, but he also has a decent outside shot. His ability to score outside of the paint creates space for Howard to do his thing down low, which makes them such a great interior duo.
Don't be surprised when Jones has a couple impressive showings in this year's playoffs.
The Rockets have some other role players who, either due to inconsistency or lack of playing time, may have flown under the radar. Point guard Jeremy Lin has had an up-and-down year as he's fluctuated between starter and key reserve, but he's still someone defenses need to account for on the floor.
Forward Jordan Hamilton, acquired at the trade deadline in a deal with Denver for point guard Aaron Brooks, is better than his spot at the end of the bench suggests. He's a good shooter from the outside (nearly 35 percent from three) and could contribute if given the opportunity.
With Beverley out, rookie Isaiah Canaan has had his trial by fire as the team's backup point guard. He's struggled to find his shot as of late, shooting just 31 percent from the field in the last five games, but he has caught the eye of the coaching staff.
"He's (Canaan's) got a good shot. He's got a lot of confidence in his shot. He can make some of the little pocket passes and some of the stuff we ask him to do," coach Kevin McHale said, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "He's still trying to figure it out. We're going to need him."
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, Houston kicked the tires on former Virginia Tech and current Bayern Munich point guard Malcolm Delaney as a potential Plan B if Beverley's knee didn't improve. With Beverley possibly back before the playoffs, Houston is thankful to be worried for nothing.
Still, in every postseason, it's the role players who use the big stage to become household names. Could Jordan Hamilton be a poor man's Danny Green? Maybe. Does Isaiah Canaan have a little Derek Fisher in him? You never know.
What about Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley (if healthy)? Could their stars continue to rise as the pressure mounts? Absolutely.
The Rockets' Big Three may have done most of the heavy lifting in carrying the team into the postseason, but it will be young talent that nobody is preparing for that will keep Houston alive.
For a team with so many high-profile players, the Houston Rockets haven't generated the kind of mainstream output one might have expected in the preseason. Much like in the standings, Houston has fallen behind San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles in the Western Conference pecking order.
That time spent out of the limelight could make the Rockets a very dangerous team when the playoffs start on April 19.