If you thought the season was tough...
If you thought the season was tough...

Rockets Improbably Win Division, Face Dallas in Round One

A lot can change in a week in the NBA. Just 10 days ago, the Rockets lost in San Antonio and went from the number two seed in the brutal Western Conference all the way down to six, giving up home court advantage in the process. The dropped the next game at home against those same Spurs and it appeared that those two teams might face each other in the first round of the playoffs, not a terribly appealing prospect considering the losses and the fact the Rockets would open on the road.

Then, as they so often do in sports, things changed. After beating the Utah Jazz at Toyota Center on Wednesday night, fans remained in the building to watch the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Spurs and send the Rockets back to the two spot, a place they had occupied for much of the last two months with the notable exception of the past 10 days.

But, let's go back a bit. The last time the Rockets finished the season atop the division, Hakeem Olajuwon was the center and Rudy Tomjanovich was the coach. OK, maybe not that far back.

If the fall from the two seed to the six seed felt like all hope was lost for Rockets fans, try to think back to July when it appeared, for a few hours, the Rockets would sign All-Star forward Chris Bosh while retaining Chandler Parsons. Instead, they lost both, with Parsons going to Dallas and Bosh remaining in Miami. The Rockets consolations were Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry. As a result, the over/under on win totals to open the season was 49.5 after a 54-win season last year. It was hard to imagine the over.

Things got even more dismal when Terrence Jones was lost to injury early in the season. Dwight Howard then went down for a ton of games. By the end of the season, Donatas Montejunas, who took a huge leap forward, was done for the season as was Patrick Beverley. No playoff team lost more games to injury than the Rockets.

But, a pair of key midseason additions in Corey Brewer (via trade) and Josh Smith (who fell from the sky as if God were a Rockets fan) along with an MVP-worthy season from James Harden and a commitment to defense turned what could have been a disaster of a year into 56 wins, a division title and a number two seed.

Whoever picked the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets to go one-two in the West, while Oklahoma City missed out on the playoffs, cashed in a huge win in Vegas last night. It's a strange league. Now, the fun begins. As the saying goes, the season is where you make your name and the playoffs is where you make your fame. The Rockets gone past the first round of the playoffs a grand total of one time since 1997. This is the first playoffs in a very long time where the Rockets feel like they could make a deep run, aided at least a little by the fact they would not have to face the Warriors until the Western Conference finals. This is the time when Harden and others can make their fame.

Still, nine months ago, many had them dead in the water. Harden's defense was mocked thanks to a widely circulated lowlight video on YouTube, Howard was dismissed as soft (as usual) and some even questioned how the loss of Jeremy Lin would impact them.

The first order of business is former Rocket Parsons and the Dallas Mavericks, a team that has struggled down the stretch, particularly after a trade deadline acquisition of Rajon Rondo, who never seemed to fit in with the Mavs.

But, this is a team with real talent. In addition to Rondo and Parsons, there is Hall of Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki. He and Rondo have championship experience and they will give the Rockets a serious run. Expect Dallas to employ a similar strategy to other teams facing the Rockets down the stretch by intentionally fouling some of the Rockets worst free throw shooters and swarming Harden on defense.

Harden had a forgettable series last year against Portland and hasn't been particularly good in the postseason on the whole. Just as his game improved markedly this year, so to must his play in round one and beyond.

Last July, the Rockets were spurned and left for dead. Less than two weeks ago, they were facing the possibility of opening the playoffs on the road. Now, they will be favored as the number two seed and the division champion at home in the first round of the playoffs. A lot can change in the NBA.

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