It appears the 4-plus month hiatus from basketball has been beneficial for the Houston Rockets. The NBA bubble is buzzing and on notice as the Rockets steadily climb the conference standings with their victories. What is it exactly that has changed? What changed is not the fact that they are winning games, because they have won games in the past, it is how they are winning the games that may shake things up this season.
James Harden, a former league MVP who has led the league in scoring for a few years, has been nipping at the heels of a Championship for some time now. He has been so close and year after year the title escapes him. The main reason seems to be in a system that is Harden-centric, the high utilization of his offensive prowess leaves him exhausted by the end of the season. All the threes he jacks up over the course of a season combined with all the step-backs and footwork leaves his legs on noodle by the time the playoffs come around. It has happened on more than one occasion. As hard as he fights to carry his team over the threshold to victory, by the second round of the playoffs his legs are al dente.
This new-look “bubble Rockets” team has witnessed a conditioned Harden who spent the time away training. Harden even made a pre-NBA bubble prediction that the Rockets would win the title this year. “We’re bringing it back to H-Town,” Harden said in an interview. “We’ve come up short these last few years, but this is an opportunity for us to fight for it, to get after it again. We have some grinding to do and some work to do, but the goal is to bring it back to H-Town.”
These fourth quarter comebacks may in fact be a sign that the Rockets are determined to win it all this year. A major key to the Rockets success is the play of the other former league MVP Russell Westbrook who spent his time off fighting for justice and training. When the Rockets are great, they are great. Nothing can really stop them when all of their parts are working in unison. However, when the Rockets are off, things can go left fast and frustration appears to set in. The combination of Harden’s focus and Westbrook’s intensity, paired with the amped up defense and conditioning has the Rockets looking playoff ready.
Imagine being outplayed for most of the game but somehow in the last few minutes another level of play is unlocked. That is exactly what the Rockets have been doing. They are not allowing any clean possessions, they are keeping real pressure on the defense, and of course jacking up those threes.
Have they found the secret sauce in the NBA bubble? Only time will tell.