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Be afraid, Warriors. The Rockets may be even better than they were last year

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The Rockets came agonizingly close to breaking through last year. It’s been a weird season, but they are peaking at the right time.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets blew out the Utah Jazz for the second straight game, 118-98, on Wednesday night. That means they have now outscored the Jazz by 52 points in the two games, neither of which was ever close.

In the commanding wins, James Harden is proving why he should be MVP, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon are shooting well, Kenneth Faried and Austin Rivers are showing they can be serviceable in the postseason, and everything seems to be going right. Chris Paul and Clint Capela haven’t played better than average, and the Rockets still look terrifying.

That leaves the question: could this Rockets team be as good or even better than the last one?

Houston’s season has been filled with ups and downs that’ve swayed their public perception. Paul missed 24 games during the regular season to injury and suspension, Capela also missed 15 games to injury, many of which came after Paul healed. Thus, the Rockets identity became The James Harden one-man team.

Fans and media (fairly) harped on the team’s decision to not re-sign Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah A Moute and criticized the poor decision of trying to fill their void with Carmelo Anthony, who only lasted 10 games with the team.

But even through all of that muck, Houston finished fifth in the league in adjusted net rating, a stat that estimates point differential per 100 possessions. That’s better than the Sixers, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Celtics, and Thunder. They won 53 games, just four fewer than the Warriors. And Harden might be playing even better ball than his MVP season.

It’s time to take the Rockets seriously.

With DeMarcus Cousins out for the rest of the postseason for the Warriors, the Bucks without Malcolm Brogdon, at least for now, the Nuggets looking beatable against the Spurs, and the Thunder down a sizable 2-0 to Portland, Houston has emerged within the title-hopeful mix.

The Rockets have taken their historic offense from a year ago, and reached another level. Even through the injuries, this year’s team has somehow found a way to take 251 more three-point shots than the last and only shoot half a percentage point worse. They’ve taken just 60 fewer free throws, but made one percent more of them. Overall, their offense is outscoring opponents by one point per 100 possessions more than they did last year, which ranks second to only the Warriors by a fraction of a point.

Two games into the playoffs, that’s persisted. With so many threats from distance, an alley-oop finisher in Capela, two of the league’s best-ever point guards handling the ball, and ample backups like Danuel House Jr., Rivers, and Faried, the Rockets have a full-fledged team ready to compete with the best. That’s something that didn’t feel possible over the summer.

The Rockets’ defense is what will make or break them.

One side of the ball could hold them back, though it hasn’t just yet. While Houston’s offense improved this year, its defense has taken a backseat. The Rockets allowed 4.35 more points per 100 possessions this season than they did last, partially due to injuries from their best defensive big man and most capable on-ball perimeter defender.

So far, so good, but Utah isn’t the team to test Houston’s defensive capabilities. The Jazz ranked in the bottom half of the league in offense during the regular season, and nothing’s changed in the playoffs. They’re shooting the fourth-worst percentage from the field at 39.4 percent and an ugly 23 percent from range.

Should the series shake out as we suspect, Houston would face Golden State in round two, and that’s where its limit would be tested. Can P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon keep up with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant with Ariza absent? Can Paul contain Steph Curry? Is Capela’s presence sans Cousins be as meaningful?

But with Houston’s offense looking as terrifying as it does now, the Warriors have to at least be a little bit worried. Houston was one half and one 27-straight three-point miss streak away from falling short of the Finals to this team a year ago. Now, they’re back, and possibly better than ever.