Rockets Try to Prove They Belong Among NBA Elite

Over the last two months, the Rockets feasted on weaker opponents, which led to an eight-game winning streak and position among the top teams in the Western Conference. Then, with a five-game road swing on the West Coast and a pair of losses to the best teams in that stretch of the schedule, they fell from third to fifth. That's how tight the teams are in the West and how tough competition is for those top spots.

Beating the bad teams, like the Rockets did Saturday at home against the Pistons, is what good teams are supposed to do. All good teams lose a few to squads that are beneath them in talent. The Thunder dropped a home game to Cleveland recently. The Spurs coughed up one to the same Pistons team the Rockets slaughtered Saturday. These things happen. But, the Rockets have joined the best teams in the league in terms of their consistency against the worst.

The next crucial step in their development is learning how to beat the best teams. While they are 8-1 against San Antonio, Portland and Golden State, they are 0-5 against the Thunder and the Clippers. This may underscore just how critical matchups are in the NBA, but it also demonstrates an inconsistency the Rockets must overcome to rise to the next level.

Over the next seven games, they will get their chance.

Starting Tuesday night, they are home for the NBA champion Miami Heat, one of two games against LeBron James' crew in this stretch. Since 1996, the Rockets are 3-14 against the Heat including losses in their last three meetings. Their last win against Miami was in 2008 when Tracy McGrady was still playing for the Rockets and James was in Cleveland.

But, the fun doesn't end there.

After a back-to-back travel game in Orlando against a God awful Magic team, the Rockets return to Toyota Center to face the Indiana Pacers, a team with the kind of defensive superiority that gives the Rockets fits (see: Grizzlies, Memphis). That is followed up by a home game against recently surging Portland and a tough three-game road trip in Oklahoma City, Chicago and winding up in Miami.

When the Rockets exited the All-Star break, I posited that a 3-2 record on their West Coast roadie was a reasonable goal, which was what they got. In this seven-game run, 4-3 would be acceptable, 3-4 not shocking, but 5-2 would mean something.

This is the time for this team to begin looking towards the playoffs, towards the kinds of match ups they will face five, six or seven games in a row. This is the time for them to begin to find out how they really stack up against the best of the best. And while every win may count the same in the standings, beating the best goes a long way to instill confidence in a young and still evolving team.

If that isn't enough motivation, there is the whole making the playoffs in the first place thing. Right now, the Rockets' position is just about equidistant between the eighth spot and the number one spot. They certainly don't appear in danger of falling out of the playoffs with a four-plus game cushion separating the top five in the West from the next three, but it won't take much of a losing or winning streak from anyone to see fairly radical changes to the standings. One critical injury could mean the difference between home court advantage and a first round matchup with Phoenix or starting on the road against the Clippers.

Every win counts, especially now, and the Rockets will have to find those wins against the best teams in the NBA. They say that's what they want. We'll soon find out.

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