By: Forrest Walker
Suddenly, the Houston Rockets are the hottest team in the league. They've won six in a row, and the closest game was against the Milwaukee Bucks, somehow. They're beating quality teams, looking good doing it, and are about to head into an All-Star game that includes two of their players. The Washington Wizards are the next team standing between the Rockets and the double-digit winning streak they covet so badly. The Wizards aren't a bad team, but they aren't on the same level as Houston. You can expect the Rockets to win in H-town. You can also expect the unexpected.
This run comes at the same time as a slow period in Houston's schedule, which helps explain it. It also coincides with the return of Patrick Beverley and Ömer Aşık, two quality players. The bench is more productive, the underwhelming Franciso Garcia has been scaled back and Jeremy Lin has taken more of the offensive load. The stars are finally aligning in Houston, and the question is whether it's a shift back to the mean or a temporary surge. Each game Houston wins lends credence to their sustainability, which is why each game, even in February, is of critical import.
The Wizards recently grabbed hold of their first winning record in four years, an accomplishment that' s encouraging, depressing and kind of amazing all at once. For a Wizards team sitting at 25-25, there are two outcomes for this game. They either slide back down to a losing record or they climb once again to the Elysian fields of winning yet again. They could become one of only five teams in the East with a winning record, which isn't very impressive on its own, but is a far cry better than the two winning records that conference sported until this calendar year.
If the Rockets win, we have a good idea of what it will look like. Their defense has picked up somewhat, and while it has lapses, the return of Ömer Aşık allows them to focus much more on denying shots at the perimeter. The less the Rockets have to rely on individual defense, the more they can cover their weaknesses as a team. The Wizards are led by John Wall, one of the best point guards in the league, so they can't be counted out. They're liable to go on some runs and find purchase against some units.
Thankfully, with the bench slowly filling back out, head coach Kevin McHale has an entire salvo of Rockets to play mix and match with. If something goes south, there are more parts to slot in and shore the gaps. And with the low number of games Houston has been playing, fatigue has never been less of an issue. The Rockets can afford to leave the starters in for a few more minutes to grab this game.
The offense has been getting in rhythm, and it's looked good even when players have off days. The goal, and something which happened in Milwaukee, is to have enough firepower that the Rockets can overwhelm even when some cylinders aren't firing. James Harden has a lot of offensive load to shoulder, but having Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin around to pick some of that up means that he can have off games form time to time. Something will always go wrong; the good teams just have enough options that they can afford to lose a couple.
This brings up what it would look like if the Rockets lose. The short answer is that it would look terrible. If the Rockets become complacent and assume a win, they risk letting the Wizards sneak into the game and through the cracks in Houston's defense (which are numerous, even with Houston at the 8th best defensive efficiency). This season has been the story of effort and experience being crucial, and the Rockets only have a little bit more now than they did before. If Wall, Nene, Bradley Beal and the rest of the Washington Wizards start to go off, the Rockets may find themselves down big early. Again.
Houston has shown that they're liable to give up any lead or crawl back from any deficit. It's party due to their fast-pace style of play and party due to their inconsistent mentality. Whatever the reason, it makes watching every Rockets game an adventure. The downside is that every game is a stressful experience, but at least no game is ever really boring.