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The best in the West? Houston Rockets swat down doubters, stand up as true title contenders

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Kevin Durant James Harden
Are James Harden and the rest of the Houston Rockets ready to stand up to the best teams in the West? Yes. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Dwight Howard post up
Dwight Howard has been on a role and the Houston Rockets have a deadly inside-out game. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Houston Rockets coach Kevin Mchale is excited to see what a fully healthy roster can do. Houston Rockets/Facebook
Kevin Durant James Harden
Dwight Howard post up
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
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As his team approached favorable health for the first time in ages, Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale sought out a figurative piece of wood to knock on as to ward off the nefarious. Even in the midst of his team congealing to the point of winning seven consecutive games before the just completed All-Star break, McHale expressed curiosity over the Rockets' ceiling, a journey into a mysterious unknown given the myriad injuries that inflicted his roster for months.

If there is pleasure derived from the Rockets' recent run of excellence, it is tempered by a reality that they might only be scratching the surface. They have been hamstrung practically from the opening tip of this campaign, with their strides initiated in January and taken deeper into February possibly offering only a snippet of their full potential. If the Rockets (36-17 heading into Wednesday night's game at the Los Angeles Lakers) are good now, is greatness plausible when their rotation, long ravaged, finally settles into place?

"I don’t think we’ve hit stride yet. I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow," McHale said. "I’ve said all year long I’m looking forward to having (the rotation intact). We haven’t had our whole group together very much so I think we have a lot of room to grow.

 During their run the Rockets are averaging 109.0 points per game with a point differential of 8.9 points per victory. 

"We still have yet to see how that whole group plays together. I doubt that they’re going to have instant chemistry; I think it might take a little bit (of time) getting it together."

Before any thorough examination of how well the Rockets have performed in recent weeks can be executed, the consideration of what they might become must be considered. Prior to point guard Patrick Beverley missing the Rockets' 113-112 victory over the Washington Wizards last Wednesday night with an abdominal strain, the Rockets were in the throes of their healthiest stretch this season. Their starting lineup, among the best in the NBA this year, inched toward the brink of optimal cohesion and peak efficiency, a welcome byproduct of having all five starters active for a relatively lengthy stretch of contests.

Of the 16 five-man lineups with at least 300 minutes logged this season, the Rockets ranks third in net rating (plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions) to the Golden State Warriors (16.5) and Indiana Pacers (13.7). The minutes disparity is jarring, however, with the Pacers' starters one of only three five-man units with at least 900 minutes played (941 minutes) while the Warriors have overcome the injury hiatus of forward Andre Iguodala to amass 647 minutes.

The Rockets' starting five of Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard has played just 329 minutes. While Howard is the lone member of that quintet to participate in all 53 games this season, the Rockets have been much healthier of late, with Harden missing just two games since Christmas, Parsons enjoying a modest string of 15 consecutive starts, and Jones having been sidelined for only two games since joining the lineup on Nov. 13. Before sitting out the Wizards victory, Beverley had compiled 10 consecutive starts after missing a month with a fractured right hand.

Interestingly, the lineup substituting guard Jeremy Lin for Beverley ranks 17th with 297 minutes played but features a net rating of 4.6 points per 100 possessions.

It comes as no coincidence that the Rockets improved their play when their expected rotation (including reserve center Omer Asik, who lost two months to leg woes) began working in concert. During their run the Rockets are averaging 109.0 points per game with a point differential of 8.9 points per victory. They have strung together six consecutive 100-point contests, their second-longest streak this season, and are shooting the ball at a league-leading clip.

The Rockets' effective field goal percentage during their win streak — 56.3 percent — would lead the NBA if extrapolated over an entire campaign (currently, the Miami Heat pace the league with a 56.0 eFG%). Their 3-point shooting remains hit or miss, but with Howard averaging 24.7 points on 60.0 percent shooting over the last seven games, the Rockets have discovered the inside-out balance that eluded them on a consistent basis for most of the first half.

"We’ve made a lot of progress and I think a lot of people have seen that, too," Howard said. "On the offensive end with the flow of the game, on the defensive end we’ve gotten a lot better. Things are coming together for us."

Rockets Doubters

Not everyone is buying the Rockets' run up the Western Conference standings, where they currently sit third behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. And despite the fact that the Rockets are 3-0 against San Antonio and just two games behind the Spurs in the Southwest Division race, doubts remain as to the legitimacy of their candidacy as title contenders — from fans and national pundits alike.

The Rockets are 5-5 against the top four teams in the West (including the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers), and while their remaining schedule is road skewed, it isn't terrifying.

After the Rockets complete their upcoming five-game West Coast road swing, exactly half of their final 24 games will tip off at Toyota Center. Of the 29 games left on their schedule, 15 come against teams currently in the postseason picture. There has been a rush to disparage their current win streak (with four of the victims presently bound for the playoffs) and to consider their upcoming road trip as a referendum on their contender status, but those views are unjust.

 "We just want to make sure that when the playoffs start our engines are tuned and we’re ready to go." 

The Rockets lead the league in free-throw rate (39.7 percent), rank third with a 53.2 eFG%, and are 12th in offensive rebound rate (27.0 percent). Their lone blemish among the Four Factors deemed critical to success is their turnover rate of 16.6 percent, which ranks 29th in the league. But the more Beverley plays the more likely that bloated figure diminishes. With Beverley in the starting lineup, the Rockets' starters have posted a 13.9 percent turnover rate.

Perhaps the stiffest challenge facing the Rockets during their closing kick, beyond the capriciousness of health, is their approach to dealing with success.

"The second half of the season is when teams are going to start bracing themselves for the playoffs, so we’ve got to do a good job of (understanding that) every game is going to count and make sure that we’re locked in," Harden said.

Maintaining that level of focus requires a mental commitment more than any adhesion to a particular set of basketball principles. Should the Rockets keep a starting five that ranks third in offensive rating (112.2) and sixth in defensive rating (100.6) active, their advantage as a unit won't wane. If Asik remains loyal to the team cause and not individual gain, the Rockets will have ample bulk in reserve with forward/center Donatas Motiejunas having emerged and forward/center Greg Smith set to return soon (meaning all 15 players will be healthy for the first time this season).

The Rockets could use a two-way wing threat to help Lin supply bench scoring, but as presently constructed, they are formidable. Well in theory, because at full force the Rockets are enigmatic.

They have matured through hardships, and now that they are set to be made whole as a rotation, the Rockets can envision taking another step forward.

"We’ve cleaned up a lot of things but there are a lot of ways that we can get better," Howard said. "We just have to be patient with each other, continue to watch film, continue to work on it in practice and we’ll get better.

"We just want to make sure that when the playoffs start our engines are tuned and we’re ready to go."