The Houston Rockets clinched a playoff spot earlier this month with a 111-107 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, ending a three-game skid that threatened to derail the team's momentum ahead of the postseason.
Instead, the Rockets turned things around and made a statement in the process. This team fears no one—nor should they.
The lone exception might have been these Thunder. OKC was the team that eliminated Houston from the playoffs in 2013. In the first meeting between the two teams this season, the Thunder prevailed 117-86 in an entirely one-sided affair. Houston lost twice more to the Thunder this season before finally breaking the code.
No one would have been surprised if the Rockets suffered their fourth straight loss. No one is expecting especially much from this team, not now and not in the playoffs. No one, that is, except the Rockets themselves.
Going forward, much will depend on which Rockets we see. They're about as streaky as it gets. Since Jan. 28, Houston has three winning streaks of at least five games apiece. During that span, it also has two losing streaks of three games.
The Rockets take a lot of three-pointers, the most in the league at 26.6 attempts per game. Whether those buckets are falling goes a long way in determining which way this team streaks.
Streaky or not, the team has an offense that's second to one—the Los Angeles Clippers. But the difference in output is marginal. Houston has proven to have an attack that's as deadly as any team's.
That attack starts with James Harden.
Few are better at threatening to score inside or out. Harden can pull up from behind the three-point arc (where he cashes in 37 percent of the time), or he can beat his man off the dribble, using a combination of strength and footwork to get to the basket.
By now we should all know how good he is. The point to consider is that no one in the Western Conference can stop him, certainly no one playing for OKC—against whom Harden dropped 39 points in April.
That forces teams to try and deny Harden the ball or otherwise double-team him when he gets it, which in turn creates opportunities for Houston's deceptively deep stable of "others," including Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and—of course—Dwight Howard.
It's an untenable double-bind for most teams, which is precisely why Houston scores so effortlessly.
And though he's more known for his defense than scoring, don't forget about Howard. According to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, many have unfortunately done just that:
And now? Now Dwight Howard has quietly turned the Rockets into a dark-horse contender in the rugged Western Conference. And he's generating indifference. He seems fine with this.
'I think people forget,' Howard said in a recent phone interview, referring to his fleeting status. 'But it takes time. It takes time to get stuff back. It's something that I know that I can get back, everything that I've lost. But all that stuff takes time. My focus is really on helping this team, and helping these young guys be as good as possible.'
By most metrics, Howard has done just that.
He's averaging 18.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in a season that would have garnered far more attention had it happened with a successful iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers. Houston is a big city, but it's not a headline-grabber.
That doesn't mean it can't be a title-grabber.
When Howard's around, the Rockets are as good as anyone. Double him and you have a handful of three-point shooters to worry about. Check him one-on-one, and he'll turn to his repertoire of solid post-moves. There's no easy answer to Houston inside-outside approach.
There's something eerily familiar about the arrangement. This is in many respects the closest approximation Howard's had to his best years in Orlando. He's surrounded by shooters who create space in which he can operate.
The biggest difference is that he never had someone like Harden leading the way for him in Orlando.
So it is, Howard now plays second fiddle. That's probably how it should have been all along. He doesn't have a mid-range game or an especially diversified offense. He does what he does, and he does it well. He doesn't do everything.
Importantly, though, he can do just enough to put the Rockets over the top, giving them a post presence when games slow down in the playoffs, ensuring a second or third option when teams opt to swarm Harden. Though contributions will prove invaluable, enough so that Houston just might have a chance to turn some heads in the coming weeks.
Like most teams, the Rockets will have to be healthy to have a chance in these playoffs. They've played eight straight games without starters Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, but they can't afford to be short-handed in the first round. The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen has the latest on when they might return:
Rockets coach Kevin McHale said he did not know if Beverley and Howard will play on Saturday against the Pelicans in Houston. Beverley has been out with a torn knee cartilage. Howard has missed 10 of the Rockets past 12 games with a strained ankle.
Both have been on the Rockets’ road trip, increasing their workouts in hopes of returning to the court.
An exact return date remains anyone's guess, but there's no reason to believe either Howard and Beverley will remain out past the end of the regular season. When asked about his status earlier in April, Beverley simply said, "I will be back soon," per Feigen.
And as far as Howard's concerned, you have to believe the club is just being cautious.
Wouldn't you be?
It may take the Rockets some time to re-cement their chemistry. They may not come out of the gates dropping 120 points. But let's keep things in perspective—it's not as though this team has been beset by debilitating injuries all season long. They know who they are. They know how to play with one another.
And by now we're aware they also know how to win games—likely even a few playoff games.