At the beginning of this season, I was talking to my friend David Hardisty over at ClutchFans.net. At the beginning of every season, we'll usually talk about what we expect from the season. The team had just traded for James Harden, but neither of us were optimistic. I pegged the Rockets' win total for this year at 36. He may have been slightly higher, but neither of us imagined a .500 record or the playoffs.
This is why they don't pay us to make season predictions.
On Saturday, a short-handed Rockets team (Harden sat out with a sore foot that has bothered him for a couple weeks and caused him to miss the second half of the Grizzlies loss on Friday) outmuscled and outhustled the Clippers, one of the best and certainly most dynamic teams in the league, 98-81.
Greg Smith, who I profiled here last week, got the first start of his career and came up big again. He and center Omer Asik held Blake Griffin to 12 points and 3 rebounds and DeAndre Jordan to 8 points and 3 rebounds. The starting center-forward tandem for the Rockets combined for 22 points and 20 rebounds.
Coach Kevin McHale clearly had seen enough of Dontas Montejunas at forward. The rookie is still learning the ropes and doesn't have the kind of NBA body needed to bang with players like Griffin. The Rockets still value the "stretch four" -- a power forward who can hit the occasional three-pointer -- but after trading starter Patrick Patterson and backup Marcus Morris at the trade deadline, a rotating cast that has included Carlos Delfino, Thomas Robinson and Montejunas has manned the position. Against the massive front line of the Clippers, McHale chose to go with Smith and it paid off.
After losing two straight to Indiana and Memphis, both in meek offensive fashion, there had been whispers from fans worried that teams had figured the Rockets high-powered offense out and, perhaps, we might see a repeat of last year's collapse to end the season. But with the Clippers clearly tired on their fourth game in five nights and the Rockets firing on all cylinders -- defensively anyway -- the Rockets easily made their way to 40 wins with nine games remaining.
They are home for woeful Orlando Monday night followed by a three-game west coast roadie first to Sacramento and then back-to-back games in Portland and in Denver, one of the hottest teams in the NBA -- they have won 18 straight at home.
Two more wins guarantees a winning record. They are a game and a half back of Golden State, who appears to be nearly a lock to hang onto the sixth seed, and two and a half games ahead of both Utah and the Lakers for the final two spots in the Western Conference playoffs. The Rockets own the tiebreaker with Utah and could clinch the tiebreaker with the Lakers in the final game of the season. Hopefully, by that time, the game won't matter and the Rockets will be preparing for their first trip to the postseason in three years.