After rocky beginnings, the Rockets continue to rise up the Western Conference standings.
Things looked much different on Feb. 21: Houston was fifth in the West, held a 1.5 game lead over the eighth-seed Clippers and trailed the No. 2 seed Denver Nuggets by 6.5 games. Since then, the Rockets have been the hottest team in the league, making the playoff race in the Western Conference that much more interesting.
The Rockets withstood a 40-point night from All-Star Kemba Walker to defeat the Hornets 118-106 for their ninth-consecutive win.
9 WINS IN A ROW!- Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) March 12, 2019
Less than three weeks removed from nearly slipping to eighth, Houston is now third in the Western Conference and trails No. 2 Denver by just two games. Catching the Nuggets is not nearly out of the realm of possibility as the teams meet for the final time in the regular season on March 28.
The power of a win streak cannot be understated. Houston rose to the top of the West in the 2017-18 season thanks to three win streaks of 10-plus games. While the Rockets haven't reached the 10-game plateau just yet, this team is figuring things out at the right time.
Let's take a closer look at how they've done it…
Starting with a statement
Houston's win streak began on Feb. 23 with a road win over the defending-champion Warriors without reigning MVP James Harden.
Paul stepped up in his absence, scoring 23 points, dishing out 17 assists and grabbing five rebounds - a welcome sign after the 14-year-veteran has missed a good chunk of time with injury this season.
Over the course of this stretch , Paul's averages of 13.0 points and 9.1 assists are far from gaudy numbers, but his presence on the floor has steadied the team. Since sitting out in Oakland, Harden has not missed a game, averaging 34.0 points, 6.1 assists and 5.5 rebounds in the seven games he's appeared in. Eric Gordon rounds out the team's big three on offence, averaging 19.6 points while shooting 48.2 percent from the field and hitting 4.3 triples per game at a 43.0 percent clip
In addition to the Warriors, the Rockets have earned wins over the Celtics, Raptors and Sixers - all statement wins in their own right. Houston has shown the ability to compete with - and beat - many of the league's contenders, a big confidence boost as the postseason nears.
Defence sets the tone
Since the streak began, the Rockets have boasted the league's sixth-ranked defence with a Defensive Rating of 106.3 . Houston's Net Rating of 8.3 in this span is second behind only Detroit, who has been the hottest team in the Eastern Conference.
Sunday's win over Dallas shows exactly just how important defence has been for Houston as of late; the team held its opponent to under 100 points for the third consecutive game and made big defensive plays down the stretch.
It's no coincidence that the team's dominance on the defensive end coincides with the return of Clint Capela, whose second game back from injury was the win over the Warriors. With Capela serving as the anchor on the interior, the team's perimeter defence has been led by P.J. Tucker, who has served as…
Paul, Harden, Gordon and Capela have all been great, but the play of Tucker has allowed the Rockets to reach new heights in this span.
Not only has Tucker played all-league defence on other team's best players, but he has also averaged 8.8 points per game while connecting on 50.0 percent of his 5.8 3-point attempts per game.
Once the postseason begins, Tucker will again be tasked with guarding the best offensive talent in the Western Conference. As it stands, the Rockets will likely face the Jazz, Spurs or Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, meaning the 6-foot-6 forward will likely see time guarding the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, DeMar DeRozan or Danilo Gallinari.
Tucker's ability to serve in a do-it-all role on the defensive end while knocking down jumpers to keep the other team honest on the offensive end is the key to the Rockets going on another deep run this postseason.