Hoops Sense

The Houston Rockets prove they're elite — quickly: This isn't just a Dwight Howard party

Rockets prove they're elite — quickly: This isn't just Dwight Howard

James Harden Thunder
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Dwight Howard post Rockets
Dwight Howard knows the Houston Rockets should be even better in February. Photo by Mike Young/Getty Images
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Kevin McHale already sees a difference in his Rockets. Houston Rockets/Facebook
James Harden Thunder
Dwight Howard post Rockets
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012

When he wasn’t spending time gleefully serving as the locker room DJ late Friday night, Rockets center Dwight Howard was broaching the same topic that has consumed him during his first month in Houston.

The Rockets had throttled the Brooklyn Nets earlier that evening at Toyota Center, notching their sixth consecutive home victory in the process and setting the stage for an early-season showdown in San Antonio against the Spurs the following night, a contest they won 112-106 in white-knuckle fashion. The glowing results spoke to progress for the Rockets (13-5) and, furthermore, the steady accumulation of stellar performances underscored everything Howard spoke of regarding the development of chemistry.

“Everybody is learning how to still play together,” Howard said. “It’s going to take time. We’re going to be a lot better team come February than we are now. The more time we have together the better we’ll get, and the better we’ll be as individuals.”

 "We’re going to be a lot better team come February than we are now." 

Those words didn’t ring hollow Friday night, and they certainly resonated after the Rockets scored the final nine points in their victory over the Spurs, a win that snapped their seven-game losing skid in San Antonio. The Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers, the top two seeds in the Western Conference, are a combined 13-2 at home this season. The Rockets have handed both their lone home defeats thus far.

When the Rockets dropped consecutive home games to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers earlier this month, it was difficult to fathom such a remarkably hasty turnaround. But with the abandonment of the failed Twin Towers experiment and the insertion of forward Terrence Jones into the starting lineup, the Rockets reclaimed their identity as a fast-paced, offensively-efficient team. Wins followed immediately.

Standing alone, Jones’ stats as a starter — 13.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks — validate his promotion. But it is Jones’ positive influence on the Rockets’ offense that has made the greatest impact, most notably his ability to space the floor with his reliable perimeter shooting, something the Rockets lacked when center Omer Asik played alongside Howard for the opening eight games of this season.

With Jones in the lineup, the Rockets have a stellar offensive rating of 119.2 points per 100 possessions. Their net rating of 16.2 points per 100 possessions would lead the league by a comfortable margin. After scuffling to rediscover the efficiency that yielded in an elite offense last season, the Rockets rekindled that magic once Jones joined Howard, James Harden, Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons as starters.

Collectively that quintet has logged 110 minutes together on the court to transformative results. That five-man lineup boasts a 122.0 offensive rating and a staggering 23.3 net rating following the win in San Antonio. With Jones providing energy and a perimeter threat, the Rockets have reclaimed the cutting that serves as the foundation for their offense, one reliant upon rim attacks, 3-pointers and free throws.

 Eighteen games into a season bloated with aspirations, the Rockets have gelled faster than anyone might have predicted. 

The Rockets closed November second in the league in offensive rating with 109.3 points per 100 possessions (the two-time reigning champion Miami Heat rank first at 109.4). Their net rating of 8.6 points per 100 possessions is fourth behind the Indiana Pacers, Spurs and Heat, and their 55.6 effective field goal percentage is bested only by Miami. With Jones bounding about, snagging defensive rebounds and pushing the basketball with vigor, the Rockets are fifth in pace at 99.3 possessions per 48 minutes.

Despite their reliance upon a backcourt besieged by injuries, the Rockets have been steadfast in their approach. They still lead the league in free throw rate (42.8 percent) despite their most prolific shooter from the charity stripe, Harden, missing four games with a sore left foot. Point guard Jeremy Lin, who is 42-for-65 in the paint and below the foul circle, has already missed the bulk of three games with a right knee sprain and contusion yet the Rockets remain atop the NBA in restricted area field goals (378). And, they average more 3-pointers (27.1) than any team in the NBA while ranking second to the Lakers with 10.3 treys made per contest. Their shooting percentage from deep, 38.1 percent, is on the uptick of late.

From Deep

Beyond the addition of Jones, the Rockets’ proficiency from behind the arc was the last remaining obstacle between their sluggish start and their recent productivity. During their five-game stretch in which they did not trail at Toyota Center, the Rockets converted 68-of-132 (51.5 percent) 3-pointers. Against the Spurs they shot 13-for-30 (43.3 percent) from long range, and have grown accustomed to the bench contributions of Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi as reliable sharpshooters.

Eighteen games into a season bloated with aspirations, the Rockets have gelled faster than anyone might have predicted. Howard continues to proclaim that this is only the beginning, but after their landmark victory at AT&T Center on Saturday night, the Rockets appear to be well ahead of the curve.

“I’ve been seeing it the past couple weeks,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Our team is getting tighter, coming together.”