Don't look now, but the Houston Rockets are just two games back of our Denver Nuggets. And they're the ninth-seeded team in the Western Conference!
Denver: 15-9 (7-4 at home)
Streak: Lost 2
Houston: 13-11 (3-8 on the road)
Streak: Lost 1
Injuries: Denver: Timofey Mozgov (sprained ankle) is doubtful
Television: Altitude TV
Season Series: 0-0
Opposition's Take: The Dream Shake
In the wake of Yao Ming's retirement, the botched Chris Paul / Pau Gasol trade that would have sent the elder Gasol to Houston and their inability to sign the younger Marc Gasol, the Rockets - a team that has missed the last two post-seasons - were supposed to be a Western Conference doormat this season.
Not so fast.
24 games into a lockout-shortened 66-game season, new head coach Kevin McHale and the Rockets find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. With a record of 13-11, Houston is just 2.5 games back of the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and just two back of our Nuggets. After winning just three of their first 10 games, the Rockets have won 10 of their last 14 games ... and had a seven-game win streak in there, too.
I've always been a big fan of McHale as a player and commentator, but never liked him as a general manager or a head coach. During his reign in Minnesota, McHale's Timberwolves were marred by stupidity (their illegal attempt to re-sign Joe Smith and the giveaway trade for Kevin Garnett years later) and their inability to surround the superstar Garnett with enough talent to make an impact during his prime years. Similar to the Nuggets when Carmelo Anthony was here in Denver, McHale's/Garnett's Wolves made eight-straight playoff appearances but only got out of the first round once. And on McHale's way out the door in Minnesota, he "coached" the team to a dreadful 20-43 record.
And yet, with arguably the least talented roster he has ever had to work with now in Houston, McHale's Rockets are soaring above pre-season expectations. So, as we've become all-too-accustomed to in the Western Conference, there is never a night off.
Speaking of "nights off," the Nuggets have suddenly had a number of those lately. Losers of four of their last five games, the Nuggets are struggling mightily in tight games against decent teams. In three of those losses - to the Clippers, Grizzlies and Lakers - the Nuggets lost by a combined total of 11 points, due largely to poor end game execution on the offensive end of the floor.
Maybe having six days at home will help the Nuggets' cause (they don't have to travel until Friday for when they play at Indiana on Saturday) as this team desperately needs to regroup and get its mojo back. But alarmingly, the Nuggets haven't been playing well at home, where they've dropped three out of their last four and are only 7-4 on the season. Even the Rockets' disappointing road record of 3-8 shouldn't give Nuggets fans comfort that our squad can win a home game right now.
How exactly the Rockets have been winning games is a mystery that Nuggets head coach George Karl and his coaching staff will need to figure out before Monday night's tip-off. Looking at some of their recent victories, there isn't a consistent pattern to point to. Unlike our Nuggets - who typically win games by simply running their opponents ragged to a blowout, high-scoring victory - the Rockets have won games by slowing games down and keeping the score low, speeding games up and racking up lots of points, and everything in-between. Comprised mostly by solid roll players, you never know which Rocket player will be the key contributor on any given night.
All that said, I still think the Rockets are greatly overachieving (good for them) and ultimately won't make the playoffs this season. And thus, if the Nuggets can just get back to what they do well - especially at home - the Nuggets should get back to their winning ways at Pepsi Center. If not, that two-game cushion over Houston becomes one and Nuggets Nation will collectively start pushing the panic button ...
SCOUTING THE ROCKETS
Luis Scola: A model of consistency, the Argentine-born Scola's numbers are down (slightly) across the board and yet he has been as effective as ever, on both ends of the floor. Scola will give Nene fits on Monday night.
Kevin Martin: Martin may have one of the most awkward looking jump shots in the NBA, but he can go for 30 points on any given night and never misses a free throw.
Samuel Dalembert: Desperate for a center, the Rockets picked up Dalembert and he has been repaying them with solid defensive play. Dalembert blocks at least two shots per game and plays within his means offensively, too.
Hasheem Thabeet: Now in his fourth season, Thabeet - a nice, thoughtful guy - appears to be on track to become the biggest second-overall pick bust in NBA history. Even though the Rockets are desperate for size, Thabeet has been DNP-CD'd in all but four games this season.
The Nuggets haven't lost three straight all season long, but they've now lost two straight four different times. If the Nuggets are to maintain their hold on home court advantage for the playoffs' first round, they have to stop trading wins for losses. That starts by taking care of teams at home, and the Rockets should be the first of many victims to come if the Nuggets are serious about making a substantive impact on the NBA this season.