While Houston’s offense will be the first point of call as long as Mike D’Antoni remains Coach, Rockets improved defense this season has raised its profile around the league. Houston holds top five positions this season on both ends of the court with its 27th ranked defense last season moving all the way up to fifth.
Thanks to the additions of veteran defensive studs PJ Tucker and Richard Mbah Moute, Houston has made progress addressing its weakness without hemorrhaging its offense as both guys are good three point shooters.
That aside, Rockets hold the league’s best record with 22 wins in 26 games and look primed to take down reigning champions Golden State Warriors. They have the Most Valuable Player Award front runner in James Harden and deploy the best backcourt in the Association too.
In Harden and new recruit Chris Paul, D’Antoni has the luxury of playing two of the best Point Guards on earth alongside Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon. What this means is Houston games have Paul or Harden playing against bench units depending on which player is the first to exit the game to rest. And there is more to get excited about the team aside the inevitable chemistry improvement down the stretch between Harden and Paul.
After beating Charlotte Hornets 108-96 recently, Rockets hold an 11 game winning streak putting them on the verge of equaling and bettering Boston Celtics 16 game winning streak. Cleveland Cavaliers is the latest team to get close to equaling Boston’s record after falling three games short off the record following a 102-106 loss to Indiana Pacers. The Warriors are inching closely behind with eight straight wins but Rockets are closer to eclipse Celtics record; looking at the team’s upcoming fixtures, Rockets have a big chance to do so.
To beat Boston, Houston must win six straight games and aside two of the upcoming six being difficult, the remaining game are easily winnable. Rockets are set to play Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers in Paul’s return to the Staples Center for the first time after getting traded to Houston. They play Milwaukee Bucks then return to the City of Angels to face LA Lakers then round the six game stint up with a tie against Oklahoma City Thunder. In the immediate future, Houston takes on San Antonio Spurs on Saturday in a game that will determine how feasible the record breaking attempt is.
Prior to a surprising 89-95 loss to Dallas Mavericks in the Texas showdown, Spurs had recorded an impressive win over Boston and added a couple of easy wins over Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns before falling to Dallas. One would have imagined a very frustrated Gregg Popovich following such a defeat. However, the veteran Coach was in a cheerful mood as the game marked the return of star Forward Kawhi Leonard from a long injury layoff. Leonard’s return is bound to cause a lot of changes in the team as LaMarcus Aldridge has been superb leading Spurs in points-22.7- and rebounds 8.3 in Leonard’s absence.
As he plays more minutes after playing 16 minutes on his return, the team’s flow will naturally gravitate towards Leonard. However, Rockets won’t be able to take advantage just yet as Kawhi’s presence on the court is likely to be short. Irrespective of Leonard’s reduced role in the All Texas game, Rockets lost in last season’s playoffs against San Antonio without Leonard. In his stead, Manu Ginobli added another highlight moment to his glorious career by blocking a potential game winner from Harden.
While Utah, Clippers, Bucks and Lakers don’t have the all round quality Houston does to cause an upset, Spurs do to an extent this time around. In the back court battle, Rockets stand way ahead of Spurs as the team cannot over stretch Tony Parker who recently came back from a similarly lengthy injury. This means either Paul or Harden will get a free run at Parker’s backups DeJounte Murray and Patty Mills easily translating to a mismatch in favor of Rockets veteran duo. With Kawhi bound to feature less on the wing, Spurs defensive attention will be easier on Harden and Paul.
Despite beating the impressive Indiana Pacers on Paul George’s return, Oklahoma City Thunder ranks ninth and has generally been poor through the season. With Carmelo Anthony struggling as a catch and shoot option who has to be involved in creating rather than finishing one and George producing inconsistent numbers, the Thunder are don’t offer much to disrupt what could turn out to be the league’s best run this season.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter