Whenever an NBA team goes on a winning streak, even if that streak is four or five games, declarations are made. Some are long term, often with little evidentiary basis, but most are the of the moment variety. That team gets the designation of hottest team in the league. The NBA can be hyper competitive, particularly as we get closer to the playoffs and especially in the Western Conference, where eight of the best 10 records in basketball reside. So, when one of those Western Conference teams goes on a run, it is reasonable to call them the hottest in the NBA. But, for these current Rockets, they may need to find a new term because hot doesn't quite suffice.
In 2014, the Rockets have the best record in the league by a pretty healthy margin at 23-6. Their only losses in the last 10 games came in the second half of back to back games: a last second loss at Golden State, a very streaky team in their own right, and in a close game at the Clippers, the final game in a five-game road trip. More impressive have been their last four, all wins, in a close one against the Heat, a complete crushing of the Pacers and a Sunday night overtime, come from behind stunner against Portland. Add to that a classic let down game on a travel back to back they eked out against Orlando, and you have yourself a bona fide hottest team in the NBA.
Last week, I wrote about how the next seven Rockets' games would tell us a lot about this still improving team. I suggested that finishing that stretch 4-3 would be reasonable. So far they are 4-0, all part of a five-game winning streak and eight wins in the last 10 games.
I'm not going to bore you with stats. Rather, I want to point out that for the first time in over a decade -- setting aside the amazing 22-game winning streak in 2008 by a team that had little chance to win a title thanks to injuries -- the Rockets are legitimately relevant. This isn't a cross your fingers and hope everyone is healthy kind of relevance. This isn't the kind of success built on hopes, dreams and spunk. This team is absolutely for real.
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Not only has James Harden, the Rockets undisputed best player, become a closer and someone who drives a team's success rather than follows it, but the team clearly has begun to buy into how to win together. All the early season awkwardness is gone. The defensive missteps have been curbed. Big shots in crunch time are falling and even in the face of a monster run by an opponent, they keep their composure. Only turnovers remain as a singular issue, something they can correct. Dwight Howard pointed to how Indiana remained calm even when the Rockets were beating them soundly as something to work towards. I recall Hannah Storm doing sideline coverage for NBC during the 1995 NBA Finals and remarking how that Rockets team that would sweep the Orlando Magic seemed so calm in the face of adversity. This current Rockets team seems to be learning that as the season goes on.
More importantly, this team is fun to watch. Not only are they winning and doing so in raucous fashion, but they are having a blast in the process. Seeing Harden flinging his arms up and down after yet another big three pointer against the Pacers was a welcome sight and with even Jeremy Lin finally busting out of this slump, the whole team is on a joy ride.
The question is can they keep it up? They still have critical games left against Miami, San Antonio and a pair against Oklahoma City to name a few. But, those are mixed in with a bunch of games against .500 or below teams. With the playoffs looming, it would be surprising to see this team take its foot off the accelerator.
If you haven't been paying much attention because you don't have Comcast (a discussion for another day), you might think about switching or plan to spend quite a few nights at the sports bar in the coming weeks because this is a team you definitely want to watch.