The Houston Rockets are, without question, the hottest team in basketball. Much of that is due to the incredible play of their star James Harden, who is shattering offensive records left and right including setting a new NBA record for number of games in a row with at least 35 points and 5 assists. That one was held by Oscar Robertson.
Over their last 11 games, they are 10-1 including five straight, their only slip in a rough game in Miami. Much of it has been played without Chris Paul, who is still nursing a hamstring injury, James Ennis, who should return this weekend, and even Eric Gordon, who has a bruised knee. Austin Rivers was acquired in the middle of that stretch and has been outstanding, and the team has gotten key contributions from Danuel House and Gerald Green, along with Clint Capela, who remains one of the best centers in the NBA.
As of writing this, they have climbed from fourteenth in the West all the way to fourth in the span of a few weeks, a testament both to their outstanding play and the radical instability that is the Western Conference. While they Rockets are only three-and-a-half games out of first place, they are also only four games out of eleventh, a trend that shows no signs of letting up.
This next week offers them further opportunity to climb the ladder or, perhaps, drop back a bit. Their next four games are against the Warriors, currently No. 2 in the West, the Trailblazers (fifth), the Nuggets (first) and the surprising Bucks, who have the best record in the NBA. Golden State and Portland begin the week with road games while Denver and Milwaukee follow up traveling to Toyota Center.
What happens in the next four games won't change the season, but it could be a good indicator of just how far the Rockets have come since they were cellar dwellers in the West.
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None of this would be possible without Harden transcendent play over the last few weeks. In these last 11 games, he is averaging 39 points and 8 assists including four straight 40-point games. He has two triple doubles in that frame, one with 50 points, the other with 43.
There have been plenty of stories written in the national media about Harden over the years. He has been regarded as both a brilliant offensive player and part of the new school of basketball which values three pointers, layups and free throws over mid-range shots. The last of those is a particularly sensitive subject for many as Harden routinely gets to the line more than any other player in the league. In one recent game, he went to the free throw line 27 times.
Still, if you are a team annoyed about how often he goes to the line, you could stop fouling him. But, he's been so good as a shooter — he's over 40 percent on threes and higher than that on his nearly un-guardable step-back variety — and leads the NBA in drives to the basket, so fouling him may be unavoidable.
The question is how long he can keep this up. His usage rate is extremely high and he is still averaging too many minutes thanks to key injuries. But, if he plays at even 90 percent of what he has been, this will continue to be a very good team. And when (and if) they are finally able to get healthy, they look poised for another run into the playoffs, something very few thought was possible a month ago.