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Paul Flannery | March 2, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

Rockets soaring with best of the West

Rockets soaring with best of the West

Back in late December, the Houston Rockets stumbled into Indiana for a game against the Pacers with a beaten up roster and tired legs. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin were out of the lineup. Chandler Parsons’ back was hurting, and so was James Harden’s ankle. Things were so bleak that it qualified as news when they were able to conduct a 5-on-5 practice.

No matter, coach Kevin McHale said that night. His team was going to run and force the Pacers to play their game. They didn't. Indiana clamped down defensively and rolled to a 33-point win, which continued a familiar pattern for the Rockets: Galvanizing victories followed by tough losses with multiple trips to the trainers' room in between.

At that point the Rockets looked like an intriguing but flawed creation. While their offense was humming along -- the Indy game notwithstanding -- the defense was suspect and the depth was non-existent. Asik was being dangled in trade talks and it looked like GM Daryl Morey had more work to do to build a contender around Harden and Dwight Howard. Still, McHale was hopeful that better things were around the corner.

"I think we're building," McHale said before that Pacers' game. "I think we're getting better. When you have seven games in 11 days, when you're light on bodies at a certain point you just get worn down. I'm looking forward to us getting healthy."

At the time it sounded like classic coach speak, but two months later McHale looks prescient. The Rockets are healthy and they reeled off eight straight wins heading into the All-Star break. They followed that up with a successful five-game road trip in which they went 3-2, dropping an overtime game to the Warriors and a tough, competitive contest with the Clippers. Since that blowout loss to the Pacers, the Rockets have won 22 of 30 heading into the weekend.

All of that has made Houston the latest Legit Darkhorse Contender to emerge in the Western Conference, an honor previously held by the Blazers and Warriors. Portland has held steady, but the Warriors have been up and down. That's the nature of the superior conference, where teams rise and fall with alarming speed. But there's reason to believe that the Rockets have staying power.

Their offense, which is built around the scientifically sound principles of playing inside out while shooting lots of threes and getting to the free throw line, has been strong all season. Howard has played in every game and enjoyed a bounceback season in peace and tranquility. Harden is doing his effectively laconic thing and Parsons has emerged as a dynamic corner-three man.

The depth, which was so shaky back in December, has also improved dramatically. Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin have held down the point guard spot and given McHale different lineup looks with multiple ballhandlers. Beverley is also a terrific on-the-ball defender, a must on a team with lackluster perimeter defenders.

Second-year forward Terrence Jones has quietly emerged as a key contributor and Morey kept his trade deadline streak alive by swiping Jordan Hamilton from the Nuggets. It's early but Hamilton's youthful athleticism looks like a nice complement to the second unit. A healthy Asik and rejuvenated Donatas Motiejunas (OmDoMo to their friends) give them legit frontcourt depth.

Even the defense, which was once a major concern, has tightened up considerably. Forget points per game where the Rockets run an undistinguished 19th. Pace matters, and the Rockets' high number of possessions naturally leads to higher-scoring games.

Even the defense, which was once a major concern, has tightened up considerably.

They rank ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions, per nba.com/stats. As SI's Rob Mahoney pointed out, they have has the sixth-best defense by that same measure since the start of the new year and the league's best point differential during that span.

There are issues, as there are with every other contender. It will be harder to keep up their frenetic pace in the playoffs, many of their role players are untested in the postseason and Howard's free throw shooting will always be a concern. But it would be foolish to dismiss the Rockets as some kind of weird lab experiment. Strip away the unorthodox style and unfamiliar names and what emerges is a very good basketball team anchored by two stars that's built on sound principles.

As we head down the wire, the West looks as wide open and chaotic as ever. Oklahoma City is the presumptive favorite, but there are no soft spots from one through eight. Here's a snapshot of the rest of the contenders (all rankings are based on points per 100 possessions and are from nba.com/stats):

OKLAHOMA CITY

Offensive Rating: No. 7
Defensive Rating: No. 4
Net Rating: No. 3

The good: Kevin Durant, plus a healthy Russell Westbrook give the Thunder plenty of firepower and an emerging cast of young players gives the rotation fresh legs and tons of quality depth. Their top-5 defense is perhaps their greatest strength.

The bad: Westbrook has been shaky since he returned, which was to be expected, and the Thunder have lost three straight games, including one to the Cavs at home, which was not. Blaming Westbrook is a time-honored -- and overstated -- tradition. There's plenty of time for him to get back on track.

The unknown: With Caron Butler coming on board, coach Scott Brooks has all the veteran options he could want. Will he trust his young players in the playoffs?

SAN ANTONIO

Offensive Rating: No. 6
Defensive Rating: No. 5
Net Rating: No. 4

The good: As long as Tim Duncan can move and Gregg Popovich is on the sidelines, the Spurs have to be taken seriously. Kawhi Leonard has returned from injury and getting Tony Parker rest now should pay dividends later.

The bad: The Spurs are 1-8 against Oklahoma City, Houston and Portland and the lack of quality wins has gone from weird trend to full-blown concern.among the faithful.

The unknown: Can they get healthy? That's the key question. Even with all the injuries, the Spurs have maintained a top-5 defense and have all the veteran experience you could ever want. They may not be the favorites anymore, but discount them at your peril.

PORTLAND

Offensive Rating: No. 3
Defensive Rating: No. 19
Net Rating: No. 8

The good: The Blazers are tough to guard and score a ton of points. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge offer a strong 1-2 punch and their starting five is one of the best in the league.

The bad: Their defense, while adequate for their style of play, is well below average and the less said about the bench the better.

The unknown: There is no track record of postseason success for any of their starters. The Blazers carry a higher burden of proof than any of the other contenders, including the Rockets.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Offensive Rating: No. 2
Defensive Rating: No. 13
Net Rating: No. 5

The good: Blake Griffin has become a fantastic all-around player and quietly put himself in the superstar conversation. Chris Paul is Chris Paul and with Doc Rivers on the sidelines there will be no more second-guessing the coach.

The bad: The depth is thinner than Ryan Hollins and J.J. Redick is out indefinitely with hip and back ailments. Griffin and Paul have won one playoff series.

The unknown: The Clippers have added Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger in an effort to shore up their bench, but aside from Big Baby it's unclear whether that trio has all that much left in the tank.

Then there are the spoilers. Golden State is perhaps the most dangerous, but the Warriors have slipped over the past month. Phoenix (with its speed) and Memphis (with its size) offer tough first-round matchups if they make it. The Mavericks keep hanging around and the combination of Dirk Nowitzki's game and Rick Carlisle's coaching acumen give them a fighting chance in any series they play.

The West is simply brutal from top to bottom and it will be interesting to see how the jostling for seeding and matchups play out over the next month and a half. It wouldn't be shocking if one of these teams was able to pull off a first round upset and throw the whole bracket into chaos.

The Rockets are right there, and with Harden and Howard in place for the next few years, this looks like the start of something rather than the culmination of their arc. They have given themselves the opportunity -- health permitting -- to make a deep postseason push.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

When Elton Brand signed with the Hawks last summer he figured he’d found a good situation. All he had to do was provide backup support for Al Horford and Paul Millsap on a team that was actually looking to make the playoffs. All in all it was a pretty good situation for a veteran who is basically living year to year. "Maybe play 15-20 minutes a game," Brand said before the Hawks played the Celtics. Then he laughed. What else could he do?

Due to injuries to both of Atlanta’s star big men, Brand has been asked to log heavy minutes since the All-Star break. He had a vintage performance -- 20 points and 11 rebounds -- in a loss against the Wizards and he’s also recorded some big rebounding games, proving that he can still get it done. But Brand never figured he’d be asked to play 42 minutes as he did against the Knicks and the Bulls, or go another 34 in Boston on the second night of a back-to-back.

That’s just the way things have gone for the Hawks since injuries began to wreck what had been a promising season. When Horford went out with a torn pectoral muscle he took every realistic chance the Hawks had of competing with the East’s top teams, but they’ve also been without Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, John Jenkins and Millsap. This was on top of playing stretches without Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll earlier in the season.

The Hawks battled through these early injuries, but the losses have been coming more frequently. They dropped eight straight in February, often in excruciating fashion, and have fallen from a comfortable perch in third place in the East to battling it out with Charlotte and Brooklyn for sixth. Their struggles have even kept flickering postseason hopes alive in Detroit, Cleveland and New York.

"We had that third place slot for a long time and we kind of babysat that for a while," Brand said. "Then the injuries kind of decimated the team, but the guys keep fighting."

It would be a mistake to think that the Hawks are feeling sorry for themselves. There’s a difference between using injuries as an excuse and simply acknowledging the obvious.

"We’ve lost some tough games," Brand said. "Wish we had won them, but guys compete. You look at the lineup sometimes, what we have because of injuries … Jeff’s back now, DeMarre’s back now but we’re playing and we’re competing. That’s all you can ask from a group like this."

It would also be tempting to chalk this up as yet another lost season stuck in the mire of mediocrity that the Hawks have inhabited for generations. On the one hand it’s obviously looking that way, but on the other they’re still in the early stages of a rebuilding project that’s more rehabilitation than demolition.

"We’re playing and we’re competing. That’s all you can ask from a group like this."

The Hawks have about $48 million committed to next year’s team per ShamSports, mostly allocated toward a half-dozen veterans ranging from Horford and Millsap to solid starters/role players like Kyle Korver and Lou Williams. GM Danny Ferry made a number of smart free agent decisions grabbing Millsap and Carroll on short-term deals and he was also able to retain Teague for a reasonable four-year, $32 million deal. The plan was to remain competitive without limiting their long-term flexibility.

That should have worked if they could have stayed healthy, but Ferry is playing the long game here. He has all of his picks and can swap first rounders with the Nets this year and next. The cap numbers aren’t as wide open as teams like the Magic or Sixers, but Ferry can offer the chance to play alongside a proven star like Horford and in a stable system implemented by first-year coach Mike Budenholzer, whom he brought along from San Antonio.

"His system is great and he works with us," Brand said. "He has a great mix of X’s and O’s and pushing us to be better. He’s a great fit for us."

As the Hawks teeter on the brink of the playoffs, the franchise appears headed for a crossroads moment. Like any good Pop protege, Ferry has been tight-lipped about his future plans for the organization but there have been enough hints and rumors that indicate that he’s not content to sit back and win 40-45 games every year. The problem for a team like Atlanta is knowing when is the right time to make a big play, and having the assets and flexibility to make it work.

Right now that answer seems to be someday. Getting a full season out of Horford is obviously crucial and figuring out what to do with Teague is also a big priority. His career has been a series of small steps forward, but he’s lost ground this year as his shooting numbers have suffered. Like most of the players on the roster, Teague provides solid value for his contract, but is there another level for the fifth year guard to reach?

Korver and Millsap are both proven talents who have excelled in Atlanta, and Carroll has been an invaluable contributor. The rest of the roster features a hodgepodge of hopefuls like Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack who have played well in limited roles, but the only real prized prospect is rookie guard Dennis Schroeder, who has a long way to go.

In his short time on the job, Ferry has quickly revamped the roster by dealing Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and letting Josh Smith walk in free agency. The team he assembled on the fly is smart and tough. Adding talent to the existing core will be the hardest part, but Ferry has given himself options.

As for this year, the Hawks should be getting Millsap back soon and that will help stabilize the rotation. They play hard every night and that should be enough to get them into the postseason. It’s not much but it’s a credit to Budenholzer and the players who have persevered.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Timberwolves at Nuggets

Welcome to the boulevard of broken dreams featuring the two most disappointing teams in the league. (It’s true, New York. No one really thought the Knicks would be that good this year.) There has been much written and speculated about Kevin Love and his future in Minnesota, but the Wolves issues are quaint compared with the Nuggets, who have almost $65 million committed to JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson and Wilson Chandler over the next two years. Good luck breaking up that logjam, Tim Connelly.

TUESDAY Heat at Rockets

During the All-Star break, LeBron James noted that he’s learned to pace himself during the season so that he doesn’t hit his physical peak until March. Perhaps that explains some of his recent numbers, which have been ridiculous even by his lofty standards. In his last five games, he’s averaging 35.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5 assists while shooting over 62 percent. Maybe we shouldn’t be handing Kevin Durant the MVP just yet.

WEDNESDAY Hawks at Blazers

Almost two-thirds of the way through the season and the Blazers still haven’t suffered a major regression. There are a handful of issues: depth, injuries and a defense that ranks somewhere between mediocre and suspect. Depending on the matchup, the Blazers will be a popular pick to suffer a first-round upset. Yet there’s a part of me that’s rooting for them to have a deep postseason run simply to silence all of those who think that a great offense that’s predicated on perimeter shooting isn’t sustainable.

THURSDAY Thunder at Suns

Miami plays San Antonio in a rematch of last year’s epic Finals, but the Spurs are just marking time. The real action is in Phoenix where the Suns are reeling a bit, having won just five of their last eleven. That’s not a huge slump, but it’s the nature of the Western Conference that even the slightest drop in the standings is the difference between comfortably sitting in sixth and fighting it out with Memphis for the final spot. The Suns have done well to continue their surprising success without Eric Bledsoe, but without Bledsoe and Goran Dragic? L-O-T-T-E-R-Y.

FRIDAY Nets at Celtics

After all the video tributes and appreciations, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett return to Boston for just another game. It will feel weird, but at least we can get their take on Rondo’s birthday party. I hope there was roller skating.

SATURDAY Knicks at Cavaliers

Somewhere in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden, disgruntled stars Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving meet with shadowy CAA reps, the secret cabal that runs the world. A plan is hatched that will deliver the two to MSG by 2016, but wait ... what’s that? Did you hear something? It’s Isola! Scatter!

SUNDAY Pacers at Mavericks

Every time I want to write the Mavericks off they go on a winning streak. Since dropping to just five games over .500 in late January, Dallas has won 10 of 12 games. Schedule matters and the Mavs have taken advantage of a softer slate of games and loaded up against non-playoff teams. Yet they also won in Indiana and Memphis and have put themselves squarely back on the safer side of the playoff bubble. This is a big stretch for them and the rematch with Indy will be the fifth straight against playoff-level competition. Perhaps we should see how Dirk and Co. are doing at this point next week before coming to any definitive conclusions.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

There hasn’t been a rookie class this maligned since the forgettable class of 2000, but there have been signs of growth from the newest crop of kids. Here’s a progress report.

Victor Oladipo: Over the last 29 games, Oladipo has averaged 15.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists; in February he shot a healthy 40 percent from behind the arc. He’s had a handful of monster games including a 30-9-14 outing against the Knicks and he seems to be settling in as some sort of a hybrid guard role. He’s been the best rookie player during that span and should be gaining on Michael-Carter Williams in the Rookie of the Year chase.

Michael-Carter Williams: MCW appears to have hit a bit of a wall. That can be chalked up to playing too many minutes on a bad team that has become progressively worse, but his turnover rate has spiked while his assists have gone down. There’s a danger in picking up too many bad habits during this kind of season and MCW will have to work hard to avoid those pitfalls.

Trey Burke: The third guard in the triumvirate seems to have rebounded from his own stretch of poor play. From mid-January to the All-Star break, Burke shot 29 percent and saw his numbers fall across the board. He’s been stronger after the break and the Jazz have picked up their play as well. Burke may not win ROY but he’s setting a solid foundation for the rest of his career.

Tim Hardaway, Jr: One of the lone bright spots in the Knicks’ nightmare season, Hardaway has posted strong shooting numbers while playing his way into the rotation. He may not be a star, but he figures to have a long career.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: We all love the Greek Freak and if the draft were held today, he’d definitely go in the top 10 and maybe higher. As it stands, he’s still very much a work in progress.

Ben McLemore: With Marcus Thornton traded, McLemore has moved into the starting lineup but his shot has been off. He’s a very big part of the Kings future and these last 25 games or so will be a good test for him to start producing.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: No one talks about him, but he’s been solid for the Pistons. One thing Joe Dumars does well is identify talent in the draft and KCP looks like another keeper.

Tony Snell: Another player no one really talks about, but he’s been getting rotation minutes for Tom Thibodeau and making the most of them.

Anthony Bennett: Signs of life! Sometimes.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Jason Collins is in

David Roth went to Los Angeles for Jason Collins’ first game with the Nets. He reports from the scene where history was made and no one seemed to really care.

Is Philly too awful?

I wrote about Sam Hinkie’s plan last week in the Shootaround and it all makes sense on paper. But Tom Ziller wonders if Hinkie’s teardown has damaged the Sixers future prospects.

Creepy Mascot 101

The only thing more disturbing than the original Pierre the Pelican is the King Cake Baby. Good god that thing is terrifying. Matt Ufford has more in the Daily Win.

A day in the life

Doug Eberhardt takes us through a day in the life of an assistant coach in this illuminating feature.

Drive & Kick

The great Lee Jenkins joined the Drive & Kick podcast to talk about Jason Collins, Rajon Rondo and the art of storytelling.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"We’re all grown. It’s not high school. We’re not 15, 16, 17 years old, where we might have looked at somebody sideways. A lot of people in here have kids. Everybody takes responsibility in here for being a grownup. I don’t think anybody in here would really care." -- Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan talking to the National Post about having a gay teammate.

Reaction: Players’ reactions to Jason Collins have been interesting in that they have progressed from casual indifference to more clearly defined acceptance.

"It's only a handful of teams that seem like they want to win a championship. The Washington Wizards is one that wants to win." -- Newly signed Wizard Drew Gooden.

Reaction: Also: They called.

"Are you crazy? I want to play until I'm 38, like Timmy (Duncan)." -- Spurs guard Tony Parker to the San Antonio-Express News regarding retirement rumors.

Reaction: Parker was reacting to a quote that became twisted around when he indicated the 2016 Olympic games would be his final international competition. An interesting question for Parker and the Spurs: What does happen after Duncan retires? The Spurs are very much a year-to-year proposition and Parker has a lot of basketball left in him. Could they go forward with say, Parker and Kawhi Leonard as a nucleus?

"The biggest thing right now is for me to move forward and us to move forward. It’s a great question to ask, and something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. But I’ve passed that point." -- Celtics coach Brad Stevens on Rajon Rondo’s decision to skip last week’s game in Sacramento.

Reaction: Smart downplay from the coach.

"It’s my business. It’s not yours." -- Rondo’s response to the Boston media.

Reaction: Rondo wasn’t scheduled to play against the Kings, and there’s some confusion over whether he had tacit permission to stay behind, so this is grist for the talking head contingent that has been waiting all year for Rondo to do something controversial. This should be a minor blip, but Rondo turned it into a bigger deal by refusing to play the media game after the C’s win against the Hawks. His defiance is his greatest trait and his biggest weakness. You were expecting something different?

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

LeBron & Jimmy Fallon

King James had a fun little late night stunt with The Tonight Show's new host.

The Mask

LeBron's black mask survived only one game, but man was it awesome.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editors: Tom Ziller

About the Author

Paulflannery_sbhed

Paul Flannery writes about the NBA for SBNation.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, hates to drive and is probably waiting for the Green Line.

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