Through both self-inflicted wounds and highlight reels, the Houston Rockets have demonstrated their growth.
Just like when they finished with the Western Conference’s second-to-worst record last season, the Rockets still make silly mistakes. Unlike what it showed last season, Houston has proven it can correct them well enough to forge a strong identity.
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“Unselfish offensively and one of the best defensive teams,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “That’s what we talked about going into the season, and strived to be.”
The Rockets (6-5) enter Monday’s game against the Golden State Warriors (6-8) showing it remains too early to pin them as a serious playoff contender.
They just experienced a 105-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday after offering no answer for LeBron James (37 points) and Anthony Davis (27 points). Although the Lakers shot only 6-for-29 from 3, Austin Reaves made one for a 103-100 lead with 24.2 seconds left. Following James’ split free throws for a 105-104 cushion with 1.9 seconds left, Rockers forward Dillon Brooks missed a 36-foot heave. As Brooks lamented, “bailed them out.”
Nearly 48 hours beforehand, the Rockets lost to the LA Clippers for a familiar reason that once helped their franchise make seven consecutive playoff appearances. James Harden converted on a four-point play that included a step-back 3 and a foul shot, marking the Clippers’ first win in five games since acquiring the divisive guard from Philadelphia. Afterward, the Rockets outlined what it would take to reduce committing 28 fouls, which ensured the Clippers’ 30 foul shots.
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“Discipline, especially against teams and personnel that like to bait the fouls,” Udoka said. “Showing your hands is the main thing. We got too grabby and reachy.”
It’s not a reach, though, to say that the Rockets have already become one of the NBA’s most improved teams.
The Rockets previously won six consecutive games. They showcased their worth against two playoff contenders (Sacramento Kings, Lakers) and the NBA’s defending champions (Denver Nuggets). They rank second in the NBA in points allowed. They showcased a balanced offense that featured a veteran point guard’s savviness (Fred VanVleet), an emerging elite big man (Alperen Sengun) and complementary veteran (Brooks, Jeff Green) and young players (Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr.)
Usually, NBA teams need to play at least 20 regular-season games before drawing initial conclusions about their rotations, depth and tendencies. It’s not too early, however, to project the Rockets’ trajectory.
Their recent winning streak does not represent a randomly small sample size at the beginning of the 2023-24 campaign. It illustrates that the Rockets have already transformed themselves from an NBA Lottery-bound team into one that seriously can make the NBA’s Play-In Tournament.
“So far, so good,” Udoka said. “We feel we can get a lot better. We want to climb the ranking in all of those categories.”
The Rockets have a chance to do that partly because Udoka patrols the sidelines.
Stephen Silas didn’t deserve the bad hand he received. He took the Rockets’ head-coaching job three years ago amid front office instability. He coached his first game while Harden arrived out of shape in hopes that the Rockets would trade him to Brooklyn. Once Houston accommodated that request, Silas inherited a rebuilding roster full of either young and unproven players and expiring contracts.
But with the Rockets replacing Silas with Udoka after last season, he has immediately changed the culture in the same manner he helped the Boston Celtics reach the 2022 NBA Finals. No longer can players just pad their stats. Udoka commands that they play the right way. No longer can players make mistakes without seeing decreased playing time. Udoka’s rotation depends on the players’ production and effort. Though the Rockets remain a work in progress, Udoka has ensured that the Rockets’ offense moves more efficiently and that they defend with more unity.
“You want to be well balanced on the offensive end and not really be reliant on one or two guys only, but the whole team,” Udoka said. “Whether it’s with on-ball or off-ball pick-and-rolls and isos, we feel we have a lot of those bases covered. Defensively, we just continue to improve and turn some of our non-defenders into better defenders. And obviously, guys that we have in those spots, they continue to guide our team.”
Still, Udoka wouldn’t have as much impact if he didn’t have the right players around them. The Rockets made critical off-season moves that gave them both more experience and talent.
After spending his first seven NBA seasons with the Toronto Raptors as an overachieving point guard that demonstrated smarts and grit, VanVleet joined the Rockets on a three-year, $128 million contract. After becoming known as James’ troll, a versatile defender and an occasional scorer, Brooks also hopped on board with a four-year, $80 million deal. And with Kevin Porter Jr. facing an arrest on domestic violence allegations, the Rockets shipped him away to Oklahoma City before that organization waived him.
VanVleet has guided the Rockets with his playmaking (at least 10 assists in four games) and his defense, while making his younger teammates feel more empowered. Brooks has still relished his villain role as an intense defender, while also backing it up with his strong work ethic, improved efficiency and team-leading plus/minus rating (+53). And the Rockets’ young players are surrounded with the right influences.
“Fred doesn’t get the credit always as well, but he’s a smart, high IQ and tough defender. Dillon is obviously much more demonstrative and physical with it,” Udoka said. “We want that mindset on our team. I think him doing that night in and night out rubs off on everybody. I’m going to push guys to be that, but it’s always helpful to have players doing that on the court as well.”
Meanwhile, the Rockets’ younger players have already become better versions of themselves.
In his third season, Green has logged at least 20 points in seven of the last 11 games without forcing the issue as much as in his first two seasons. In his second season, Smith has gladly accepted a fluctuating role both to start and close games, while showing more consistency with his scoring and versatile defense. And in his third season, Şengün has complemented his post-up and passing skills with better defensive awareness and effort.
“We knew what he was offensively in a lot of ways and how he impacts the game for us,” Udoka said of Şengün. “He can control things there. But defensively, he has taken a huge step. He’s bought in and has improved on that side of the ball.”
Obviously, the Rockets hardly look like a finished product. They lamented their late-game execution against the Lakers and Clippers. Before and after their six-game home winning streak, the Rockets have lost all four of their road games.
“We talked about that identity, whether we’re at home or on the road,” Udoka said. “I know it affects certain guys, but we want to be a mentally tough team that can play through that.”
Nonetheless, the Rockets have displayed enough encouraging signs that suggest they soon will.
“This is a great learning experience for us – a young group learning together on the fly,” VanVleet said. “You come out and compete and play the right way, you have a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for. But at the same time, we have to find ways to close these things out.”