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It’s time to buy in

I know you’ve been through a lot. I know what we all said at the beginning of the year. Meter your expectations. This takes time. Be happy with whatever happens. It’s different now. The season is different now. The Rockets are different now. The time for caution and trepidation is over. No more golf claps and hand-wringing. It doesn’t matter if you love Houston or hate Dwight Howard’s team. The time has come. It’s time to buy in on this Rockets team. It’s time to treat them like a real contender.

It’s time for the people of Houston to come to every game and completely lose their minds. It’s time for the commentariat to expect the Rockets to win against lesser opponents. It’s time for everyone to get on board with the place the players are already at. The standards and expectations have changed in the last month, and they know that they have to act like a real threat to win it all. Now you have to act like they are, too.

First things first. This doesn’t mean you need to expect them to win it all. This doesn’t even mean they’re particularly likely to win it all, or that they’re the best team in the league, conference, or even division. We’re not even 100% sure they’re a real, live, honest-to-goodness contender. But at this point, that doesn’t matter. At this point, with a terrifying playoff gauntlet ahead of them and an amazing stretch of games behind them, they’re standing toe to toe with the best in the league whether they belong there or not. This is about where they are, and where you are, not about what they are.

I know it’s a strange feeling. I know everyone has been expecting them to come apart, to need some work, to be a year too early. They still might do and need and be all those things. And it’s still such a huge departure from the norm of the last twenty years. Even during the best year of the Yao and T-Mac era Rockets, the best team since Olajuwon, it wasn’t the same. You’ve been burned before, and it’s easy to just assume you’ll get burned again. The bad news is that you probably will get burned again. The good news is that it doesn’t matter.

There’s a price to be paid when a team sets its sights all the way up, on a title run. There can be no hedging, no excusing, no equivocating. The goalposts can’t slide back and forth. A contender is culpable for winning, no matter what, no matter when. That sounds great, and it is great. But it’s also scary and usually disappointing. Just ask the city of San Antonio about Game Six. Ask the city of Phoenix about the entire 2000s. Heck, ask New York about the 1994 NBA finals. It looked a lot different from their angle.

There’s a lot on the line when you buy in to a team like this. It’s a lot to ask, I know. They’re putting themselves in the line of fire from all angles any time they stumble or swoon. Signing up for that is signing up to stand with them, to let the rotten tomatoes splash on you, too. It’s easier to stand to the side a bit, to say that you’ll get in that corner later, when things make more sense, when everything is going great. But that time won’t ever come. It’s never perfect. Just ask Oklahoma City about that. Even when it seemed that nothing could go wrong, they still ended up on the outside looking in. They’re still waiting for that destiny to come to pass. And they might keep waiting for a long time.

That’s what the Thunder have, the watchword, the identity that encompasses them as contenders. Destiny. Everything that happens, every change they make, every year they gel, every MVP Kevin Durant chases, it’s all a progression toward a glorious, predestined future. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It just matters that we’ve accepted that as who they are, just like it doesn’t matter if the Heat aren’t really inevitable, if the Pacers aren’t really immovable, if the Spurs aren’t really eternal, if the Clippers aren’t truly relentless. These are identities and narratives, and now the Rockets are starting to establish theirs. The Rockets’ nascent identity is one of uncontainability, of explosions of passion and scoring and joy and, yes, turnovers. It’s time to accept it, to embrace it.

There’s no playoff story, no insane run, no greatest or worst moment in team history without that investment. The team is emotionally invested. They’re more invested than they’ve ever been this season. It’s time for you to do the same. You don’t get to pound the drum and walk in the parade without putting yourself, your emotions on the line. Patrick Beverley and James Harden and Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard all know this, and they’ve bought in. They’re better and more powerful and also more vulnerable because of it. You don’t get to be LeBron in the 2012 finals without running the risk of being Kevin Durant in the 2012 finals.

Even if you hate the Rockets, even if you curse the city of Houston, it’s time to go all in. Are the Rockets just pretenders trying to hold themselves up to the standards of contender? Then treat them like contenders. Hold those standards right to them. Let the skeptics and the critics tear them apart. That’s nothing less than they expect, nothing less than you should expect, nothing less than what the world expects of a title team.

The narrative is taking shape. The discussions are taking place. The numbers are coming in. It’s happening. We don’t know exactly what it is, not just yet, but that doesn’t matter. We know what it’s supposed to be, and we know what it’s going to be graded against. Whatever happens, greatness is the goal, the expectation, and the only passing score. It’s time to accept a new position and a new name for these Rockets. It’s time to stand by them as they sit down for their biggest test. Let’s buy in.

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