NBA Power Rankings Week 20: Are The Rockets Back As The West’s Top Challenger?

03.05.19 6 months ago

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It’s been a weird season for the Houston Rockets.

James Harden and company racked up 65 victories during the 2017-18 campaign and, even with injury caveats on both sides, the Rockets took the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Though it was clear that Houston didn’t improve its roster in the off-season (presumably as a result of luxury tax concerns for a new owner), expectations remained lofty as the 2018-19 season arrived, in part due to the incredible success of the team during its previous run.

On cue, the campaign did not begin in glorious fashion, as the Rockets opened with a dismal performance on the way to a record of 11-14 through 25 games. At the time, many think-pieces were authored on the state of the roster and, in short, no one in Houston could be happy with the way things went. Fast-forward three months, however, and the ship has been righted in grand fashion.

The Rockets are 27-11 since dipping to 11-14 early in the campaign and, during that three-month stretch, only the Warriors and Utah Jazz have better net ratings in the Western Conference. In fact, Houston owns a top-five mark in the entire NBA and, of course, Harden has been in the middle of everything.

The reigning MVP appeared in 37 of the 38 games for the Rockets and his numbers (40.6 points, 7.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds per game) were flatly preposterous. Harden’s effort is the biggest reason for Houston’s turnaround but, just in time, he has been joined by partner-in-crime Chris Paul during the team’s recent uptick.

The Rockets are currently riding a five-game winning streak and, in recent days, Paul looks to be his old self or, at the very least, something resembling the future Hall of Fame player that he is. Paul is averaging 18.0 points and 9.1 assists per game in the last 12 contests and, perhaps more importantly, his efficiency and shot-making are back. As such, the Rockets are arguably playing their best basketball of the season, and that has been on full display in recent wins over the Warriors (without Harden) and Celtics.

Houston will put their winning streak to the test in a must-see battle against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday but the overarching question as we approach the postseason centers on whether the Rockets are actually back. Is this the same team that rattled off 65 victories and took Golden State to the edge of defeat? Maybe not, but it would be difficult to find a team more capable of upending the Warriors in the West and that makes Houston a supremely dangerous entity as the playoffs near.

At some point, Harden’s super-human routine may slow to some degree but, for now, the Rockets appear to be rounding into form at an opportune time and the rest of the league should be on notice. Where does Houston fall this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s explore.

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