Rockets Playing Well Under the Radar

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Houston's three major sports franchises have spent the last few seasons in the equivalent of purgatory. None have been good enough to contend for a title, but none have been horrid enough to elicit the types of changes usually seen from teams bottoming out. It's a frustrating place to be if you are a sports fan. There isn't enough quality to cheer for or enough controversy to maintain interest. It's status quo at the most mundane level.

It is an unfortunate situation that, along with the Final Four tournament and the Shell Houston Open (both this coming weekend), have kept perhaps the best sports story in the last few years under wraps.

The Houston Rockets are actually worth watching.

This is remarkable enough considering their abysmal start to the season, going 0-5 out of the gate and 5-12 in their first 17. They were plodding along below .500 at 28 and 31, trying desperately to make a blockbuster trade to land Carmelo Anthony. They found out that was a pipe dream, but they did move Shane Battier to the Memphis Grizzlies for and Aaron Brooks to the Phoenix Suns. The trades only netted them one usable player in Goran Dragic and it appeared they were packing it in for the rest of the season.

But, sometimes in sports, it's addition by subtraction.

The Rockets went 10-3 and their playoff aspiration, once laughable, became a reality. The rotation opened up and players like Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger blossomed, no longer having to wait for their chance. The team's defense stiffened and they continued to play the stellar offense that often kept them in games they would lose earlier in the year. They even won games without starting forward Luis Scola and Budinger, both missing a handful of games with injuries.

Guard Kevin Martin and Lowry have both won player of the week honors. Lowry and forward Chuck Hayes recorded their first career triple doubles. Rookie forward Patrick Patterson has gone from permanently glued to the bench to a consistent contributor.

They have been nothing short of outstanding.

This is all being written, of course, right after a tough loss in Miami to the NBA's newest darling, a team, by the way, that is rolling right now, having won four straight and seven of its last eight coming into Sunday's game against the Rockets.

But, Houston, your basketball team is one of the hottest in the league and you are probably missing it. Sure, they are now three-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Yes, they have little chance of getting beyond the first round of the playoffs even if they made it, though there are a couple of teams in the Final Four who might argue that point with you.

It's also true that the NBA, like the NFL, is headed for a lockout that threatens the 2011-2012 season. But, after a very frustrating couple years, Houston could use something to cheer for and it is difficult to imagine a team more worthy of our praise.

They play hard. They are always in games. And none of them are household names. We could easily claim them as our own, if we noticed they existed.

They'll probably continue to play hard and miss out on the postseason. We'll all go back to wondering if the young Astros will surprise us, if the Texans will draft anyone to improve their defense next year and if there will even be a next year when it comes to the NFL.

But, if you've got a minute, you might want to catch a couple of the last nine games of the season. You might be surprised. And, if they do make the playoffs, don't say we didn't tell you.

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