On Tuesday night, the Rockets went into Denver to play one of the hottest teams in the NBA. They left with their second straight quality win 109-99. Over the last seven games, the Rockets are 5-2 with wins over the Pacers twice and the Nuggets. That comes after an awful 1-5 start to the season. In six of the last seven games, they have held their opponents under 100 points. They are now seventh in opponent points per game and that includes three games early on when they gave up more than 120 three times.
But, the offense is improving as well. In the last two games, they are shooting 50 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc. They have looked more like the team we remember from last season. After Golden State visits on Thursday, the Rockets enter a much easier stretch of games against less difficult opponents as well.
And while it might be tempting to make Carmelo Anthony out to be the scapegoat and point to the return of assistant head coach Jeff Bzdelik as another reason for the turnaround, there is much more to it than that.
New guys are making their mark.
If you do want to look to new additions that might be making an impact, try James Ennis and Gary Clark. Since Ennis returned from a hamstring injury, he has gotten better at staying out of foul trouble, continues to play very solid defense, and, more importantly, he is knocking down his shots, going 48 percent from the field and nearly 43 percent from three. Clark is still finding his way offensively, but his long arms and quick feet have made him a go-to defender for Coach Mike D'Antoni in the absence of Carmelo Anthony. These two rangy players give the team all kinds of options they haven't had since last season.
Forget the backcourt, the front court has been stellar.
No one disputes Chris Paul and James Harden are one of the league's best guard tandems, but if you haven't been paying attention to Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker, you've been missing out. Capela is rapidly developing into one of the best centers in the NBA. He is averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds per game and seems to be getting better every outing. Tucker is the glue that holds the team together. He's one of the best corner three point shooters in the game. In fact, he's one of the best three point shooters, period, averaging 46 percent from behind the line. Add to that this duo's toughness, rebounding and defense, and you have one of the better front courts in the league.
But the backcourt hasn't been bad either.
While Paul has struggled a bit early in the season, thanks at least in part to a nagging elbow injury, he leads the NBA in steals and even with the early issues, he's still averaging 17 points and nearly 8 assists per game. In Denver, he and Harden demonstrated why their one-two punch can be so devastating as each took over in a different half. Harden remains one of the league's best guards. He's averaging nearly 28 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists per game. His step-back three is one of the best in the NBA and his three point shooting is improving after a slow start.
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The defense has been very, very good.
There was a lot of collective hand wringing to start the year about the Rockets' defense. Losing solid defensive players (never mind their defensive guru Bzdelik, who briefly retired) and not really replacing them players of a similar caliber, it was said, would certainly make them worse defensively. Out of the gate, it appeared the naysayers were correct. They were downright awful defensively. In the last seven games, however, they have been one of the best defensive squads in the NBA with plenty of time to right the ship, especially with Bzdelik rejoining the team this week.
Shots are beginning to fall.
Finally, mercifully, the offense has started to see shots go in the basket. As good as the Rockets have been offensively the past few seasons, they were the opposite of that early this season. They ranked near the bottom in almost every offensive category. And we're not just talking about threes. They were awful in the paint, at the free throw line and pretty much everywhere else on the floor.But, there was no way this team was going to be bad offensively all season long and they have begun to show signs of life on that end of the floor. As mentioned above, their shooting, especially in the last couple games, gives everyone hope that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't just an oncoming train.