It was understandable to worry about the Houston Rockets after the first week of the 2015-16 season. After all, the team lost its first three games by a combined 60 points. Additionally, an offense dependent on the three-ball shot just 24.5 percent from behind the arc during that span.
James Harden, a potential MVP candidate, converted just 22.2 percent of his attempts from the floor in his first three games while All-Star center Dwight Howard missed time due to suspension and back troubles. The defense, which was strong last season despite mounting injuries, allowed 108.6 points per game during the team’s 0-3 start.
A week later, it appears the club is back on the right track and in position to finish the month out strong. Houston won its last four games, including quality victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets nailed 32.5 percent from three and 46.6 percent overall during the four-game win streak. Howard started showing flashes of his old form, including notching a 20-20 game against the formidable frontcourt duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Harden also managed to turn things around, scoring 40-plus points in his last two outings and giving the best post-game interview of the season so far.
Following the team’s 109-105 victory over the Clippers, head coach Kevin McHale offered up some reasoning for the slow start and how his group was able to right the ship.
“I thought our entire team played like they had cement boots on the first three games. We were just slow. When you watch the film, we just look sickly. We were able to turn the corner and get downhill.”
Thanks to the team’s recent success as well as the struggles of other contenders in the division, the Rockets are just a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for Southwest supremacy. While there is still plenty of season left, Houston should be able to feast on the remaining games on its November slate.
Of the Rockets’ next 11 contests, the Detroit Pistons are the only opponent currently with a winning record and Houston won’t face them until the end of the month. The rest of this month’s schedule has a combined record of 18-37 (winning percentage of 32.7 percent), including showdowns with win-less Brooklyn (0-7) and Philadelphia (0-7).
The soft schedule should give Houston ample opportunity to work out the remaining kinks. The team’s defense is still an issue. Houston is one of only three teams in the NBA to allow at least 100 points in every game this season (New Orleans and Sacramento, who are a combined 1-13, are the others). The unit might not truly improve until Howard (back) and defensive-minded point guard Patrick Beverley (concussion) fully recover from their respective ailments.
The club could also use the lack of tough competition as a chance to get offseason acquisition Ty Lawson going. The former Denver Nuggets point guard was brought in to bolster the offense and give the Rockets another playmaker in the backcourt. Instead, Lawson is averaging a ho-hum 10.9 points and 5.7 assists per game while producing a plus/minus of -3.7.
While Lawson has yet to find his groove, other unlikely heroes have stepped up to compensate. With injuries decimating the frontcourt, the Rockets opted to go small and instill journeyman shooting guard Marcus Thornton into the starting rotation. In five starts, he’s contributing 16.6 points per game while knocking down 45.3 percent of his shots from the field and 40.5 percent from three. Meanwhile, second-year center Clint Capela is having a breakout season at both ends of the court, leading the league in field-goal percentage (79.4 percent) and ranking seventh in block percentage (7.5).
The Rockets still have some strides to make before they can be considered a true threat to the currently undefeated defending champion Golden State Warriors, but they’ve done an admirable job of turning things around after stumbling out of the gate. Once Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas can return to the lineup, the basketball world will get to see what this Houston team is truly made of.
Until then, they can build momentum off a strong second week and a relatively easy November schedule.