The Rockets were on a roll. They were winners of their last five (8 of 9 total) including an impressive victory in San Antonio. Despite some nagging injuries to Chandler Parsons and James Harden, and an injury that would sideline Jeremy Lin until this week, they seemed to be clicking. For the first time since the start of the season, the chemistry was starting to truly build. It was easy to see the sharp ball movement and the aggressive transition game.
Then, last week, that all came crashing down. In two straight games, they lost to inferior opponents. Sure, Parsons missed both contests, Omer Asik bruised a thigh and Lin was still on the mend, but these were wins they should have had anyway. More disturbing was how they lost them.
Former Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy has been known to say that you never ignore in victory what you wouldn't in defeat. Looking back at their winning streak, there were cracks in the foundation, cracks that began to spread and came to a head in losses to Utah and Phoenix. They were things Coach Kevin McHale had hinted about and others had noticed as well. Despite the wins, the Rockets weren't playing with consistent effort, particularly on defense and it came back to bite them.
One could argue that these, like the loss to the Mavericks before Thanksgiving, were just bumps in the road. But, in the Western Conference, a few bumps can be the difference between the second and the sixth seed in the playoffs. If this were the Eastern Conference, the Rockets could lose more than half their games and still make the playoffs. Right now, only three teams have a winning record in the East. THREE.
In the West, on the other hand, only four teams are below .500. In fact, there are three teams in the West with only four losses. With the battle ahead, ever win is critical.
Fortunately, the Rockets seemed to right the ship last weekend routing both the very talented Golden State Warriors and the woeful Orlando Magic. And, in both contests, the won with defense. In fact, they weren't great on offense, shooting under 30 percent from the three point line and scoring 12 fewer points than their season average against Orlando.
But, defensively, the looked better than they have all season. The Rockets held the Warriors (one of the league's best three point-shooting teams) and the Magic to 22 percent from three and 35 percent from the field. They out rebounded those two opponents 112-86 and had 19 blocks including 5 from Terrence Jones on Sunday against Orlando.
More importantly, there was consistent defensive effort. In the losses to Phoenix and Utah were aided by a lackluster effort overall, particularly by James Harden, who still has the frustrating habit of swiping at players after they have run by him and has not been a good perimeter defender all season. As a team, the Rockets perimeter defense has been bad, but that changed dramatically last weekend.
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With better overall on-the-ball defense, it freed Dwight Howard and Jones up to be aggressive on blocked shots and go after rebounds. It changed the entire complexion of the team as they were able to stifle the Warriors and Magic in a way we had not yet seen this year.
It certainly didn't hurt that Parsons returned from his back spasms. Parsons is, without question, the team's best one-on-one defender (though Jones is improving rapidly). With his talent and Harden's increased energy, they became a formidable defensive squad for the first time and gave fans a glimpse of what might be to come.
But, the hardest thing to do as a professional athlete is maintain something over time. The great players can repeat a performance over and over. The great teams can as well. If the Rockets are able to replicate their defensive performances against Golden State and Orlando, not only will they be a terribly difficult team to beat, but they will have found a new way to win games when their shots aren't falling.
For the Rockets, this might finally be the New Age they've been talking about.