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Are Rockets Finally Ready for Liftoff?

Houston Rockets star James Harden celebrates a basket.
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

You weren’t alone if you wrote the Houston Rockets off a month ago.

And don’t worry, you still might wind up being right if you were one of the many who proclaimed them dead as championship threats way back then.

But you also might not be, as Houston has quietly worked its way back to respectability in December. Through their first 11 games of the month, the Rockets have the fourth-best net rating in the NBA, trailing only the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. And if you don’t care about the pace-adjusted quality metrics, just know the Rockets are 8-3 since escaping a horrendous November.

It’s been an across-the-board improvement, with the offense benefiting from better shooting by James Harden and the defense looking more functional because, you know, a few more Rockets have actually tried a little bit lately. Whether this turnaround is sustainable or a passing anomaly under a new head coach is hard to say, but it’s difficult to fully buy in when you consider where the Rockets were just last month.

They were 5-10 on Nov. 25, and they might have been lucky in amassing that modest mark.

Harden was clanking away from three, the offense (shakily reliant on isolation ball and a whole bunch of three-point heaves even in its respectable 2014-15 showing) had cratered. Defensive indifference was the prevailing norm, and head coach Kevin McHale had been fired after a blowout-ridden 4-7 start. Anecdotally, Houston looked like a team that didn’t like its coach, didn’t enjoy playing together and, frankly, didn’t have a chance.

Harden seems to have played himself into shape after beginning the season in slow, doughy motion — and that’s done a lot to elevate his defensive effort from nonexistent to occasionally passable. Returns to health have helped as well. Donatas Motiejunas is back, and Terrence Jones is playing better.

And in addition to the talent on the roster straightening itself out, Houston may have even benefited from the rumors and reports of discontent that came along with its adversity.

“One of your brothers is attacked or (the subject of) false rumors, you stand up for him,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the Rockets’ reaction to reports of Dwight Howard being unhappy, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “If you are on the court, someone knocks your teammate down, you go pick him up. Right now, our guys are lifting each other up. They could have jumped on the bandwagon of rumors. They didn’t. I think it’s great.”

Houston looks and sounds like a team coming together.

Yet everything that contributed to the Rockets’ pitiful start is still there, though maybe now it’s just lying dormant. The point-guard spot remains a question mark, and Ty Lawson is a candidate to be waived. Howard and Harden continue to succeed, seemingly, at the expense of one another. And Houston may simply be a team dangerously built around the talents of a singular scorer who’s hard to play with.

That’s an inherently unstable setup.

Who’s to say the Rockets won’t suffer defensive lapses now that they’ve moved back over .500? Complacency could easily settle in again.

And knowing from experience that Howard’s complaints, or even rumors of his discontent, tend to have some basis in fact (hi there, ugly exits from Orlando and L.A.!), should we really believe him when he says nothing’s wrong?

Remember, too, that these Rockets were a monumental Clippers collapse away from losing 4-2 in the second round last spring. Perhaps our expectations for them this year were outsized to begin with. Perhaps what we’re seeing now, a decent team capable of competing for a playoff spot, is really where Houston’s talent dictates it belongs.

So even if it’s tempting to view an 8-3 start to December as proof the Rockets are ready to push their way into the conference’s elite again, the safer bet is viewing this latest surge alongside the awful start. We’ve seen both sides of the Rockets’ true nature, and this recent success doesn’t erase the causes of the earlier failure — even if it masks them for the time being.

It’s too early to trust the Rockets, but at least we can say they’ve given us reason to consider the proposition.

That’s a start.

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