A Million Ways to Win in the West: Rockets Pick Up 13th Straight Over Utah

Luc Mbah a Moute ended up playing some center Sunday night, scoring 14 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Luc Mbah a Moute ended up playing some center Sunday night, scoring 14 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter. Photo by Eric Sauceda
With James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela in the lineup, the Rockets are 30-1.
With just Harden and Paul in the lineup they are 32-3.

Those are both ridiculous statistics. But consider these from Monday night in Utah.

The Rockets had zero fast break points, the first time that has happened this year.
They snapped their NBA-record streak of 55 straight games with at least 10 three pointers (they had 9).
Capela and Eric Gordon were out with injuries. Ryan Anderson sat with a sore hip flexor. Brandan Wright was out with a sore knee.
The game against the Jazz was the second half of a travel back-to-back, both games played at altitude (they beat Denver on Sunday).
They were down 15 in the first half.

They won by double digits.

The Rockets even rolled out what has to be the strangest lineup they've seen all year with Luc Mbah a Moute at center and a host of wing players around him. But, it worked as Mbah a Moute scored 17 and the lineup helped to force the Jazz into turnover after turnover in the fourth quarter on their way to their 13th straight win.

For great (and we don't use that term loosely) as this team has been throughout the season, this may very well have been the most impressive W the entire season, as impressive as the recent win over Miami on a similar back-to-back travel day at the end of a long road trip. Regardless of the circumstances this season, the Rockets have remained resilient and it has kept them at or near the top of the standings as a result. They currently remain the team with the best record in the NBA.

We predicted last week they would go 3-2 the first five games after the break. They are 3-0 heading to LA for a rematch with the Clippers after their near fisticuffs in the locker room last time they were there. Even with the Celtics looming at home on Saturday, it seems unlikely the do worse than 4-1 in this span. We will gladly accept our inaccuracy.

The fact is the Rockets have found increasingly creative ways to win games. They blow teams out with offense (they lead the league in plus/minus beating teams by an average of 8.9 points per game) and, more and more, they squeeze teams with defense (they are ninth in defensive rating, only a point behind the fifth best rating in the NBA). Leads are simply not safe with this team, even when shooting poorly as evidenced by their 15-point deficit Sunday night.

More than making them difficult to beat, it makes them nearly impossible to game plan for. Other teams must score to keep up with the Rockets, but that often takes them out of their traditional sets. They also must account for what has become perhaps the most deadly pick-and-roll in the league by switching, often leaving poor defending big men on Harden, a recipe for disaster. Defensively, the Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA who can effectively switch on everything without worrying much about isolating a bad defensive player on a good opponent.

The Rockets simply have very few weaknesses and when they aren't great, like on Sunday night, even one of the hottest teams in the NBA (the Jazz had won 11 of their last 12 including a recent 10-game winning streak that included beating the Warriors, Pistons and Spurs twice) can't keep them from doing what they do.

There are still 22 games left and the next dozen are some of the toughest of the year, but this Rockets team seems uniquely structured to outlast virtually anyone and anything thrown at them. Ask the Jazz.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke