The Houston Rockets have been on an uphill climb all season long.
They started off by losing their first five games. Then Aaron Brooks suffered an ankle injury that eventually led to his exile, and Yao Ming was again declared out for the season just days after.
Houston was 16-21 shortly after New Year’s, and it wasn’t until Monday's 123-101 win in Sacramento that it had a winning record, an accomplishment revered for less than 24 hours, after a gut-wrenching 113-110 setback in Phoenix on Tuesday pushed it right back to .500.
Despite all the trials and tribulations the team has faced in 2010-11, the Rockets sit just three-and-a-half games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot entering Wednesday's games, and there are five reasons to believe they can do the unthinkable and play themselves into the field:
1. Finally cleared for take-off
Forgive the play on words, but the Rockets are playing their best basketball at the right time.
Since returning from the All-Star break, Houston is 7-2, with the only blemishes being three-point road losses to the Clippers and Suns, both on the second night of a back-to-back.
In other words, the Rockets are two buckets away from riding a nine-game winning streak into a pivotal six-game homestand that begins Saturday with San Antonio.
Scoff if you will, but part of the reason the Rockets are in dire straights is because they lost to the cellar dwellers too often earlier in the season.
That hasn't happened recently, and Houston finally appears ready for all takers.
2. Favorable schedule
The Rockets host 11 of their final 16 games, and have just eight games remaining against teams currently in the postseason.
Six opponents sport losing records, and after a season full of them, Houston has to endure only two more back-to-backs.
This schedule provides the Rockets with an opportunity to make up the ground necessary to elevate them into the playoffs.
3. Rick Adelman
Houston is one of five teams battling for the final two Western Conference playoff spots, a group that includes New Orleans, Memphis, Utah and Phoenix.
Their respective coaches—Monty Williams, Lionel Hollins, Phil Johnson and Alvin Gentry—have combined for 664 wins and four playoff appearances in 23 seasons as head coaches.
Adelman is 10th all-time with 935 wins, and has coached in the postseason 16 times in 20 seasons, twice taking Portland all the way to the NBA Finals.
In other words, Adelman has been there and done that, something you can't say for the other four.
Only a handful of coaches are good enough to do what he has done to keep the Rockets in the playoff mix despite all the injuries and roster changes Houston has undergone during the past two seasons.
Ultimately the players will decide if the Rockets are going to make a run or not, but you can bet Adelman will have them ready for whatever and whoever stands in front of them.
4. Trades helped defined roles, improve late-game execution
The trades of Brooks to Phoenix and Shane Battier to Memphis have cleared up what was a foggy and inconsistent rotation for the season's first four months.
The lineup Adelman went with to close games changed on a nightly basis.
One game he would go with Brooks and Lowry. The next, he would go with Brooks and Martin. Or maybe Lowry and Martin. Or all three would play, and Battier would move to power forward or the bench.
Either way, the revolving door hurt the Rockets' execution in "winning time", which explains why they are 5-7 in games decided by three points or less and 1-5 in overtime.
Since the deadline, the Rockets have been better at closing out opponents because the players know who is going to be on the court and exactly what sets they are going to run in crunch time.
The only question is whether Courtney Lee or Chase Budinger is going to join Lowry, Martin, Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes for the final push.
You can't win big if you can't close, and it appears the Rockets have finally figured out the right formula.
5. Defense wins championships, but...
Offensive prowess is enough to clinch a playoff berth.
Only four of the current top eight in the West rank in the league's top-10 in scoring defense, and just five of Houston's final 16 opponents are in the same echelon, while four rank in the NBA's bottom third.
What that means is Houston likely will be playing the home stretch in their element: fast-paced games with the intent not necessarily to stop, but outscore, its opponent.
An honest assessment of the Rockets will tell you that they have a roster of players that play hard on defense, but the lack of a true center who brings rim protection (cough, Yao Ming) makes it hard for them to get stops consistently over long stretches.
Offense is their ticket, which is good because Houston is third in the NBA in scoring at 105.9 points per game. Not only is it a high octane unit, it's also remarkably efficient, averaging 23.5 assists and just 13.5 turnovers.
It will take at least 45 wins to qualify for the West playoffs, meaning a 12-4 finish is a must for them to have a shot.
The opportunity is there, but the question remains: can these Rockets add a new chapter to the Clutch City annals?
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