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Friday March 25, 2011 3:09 PM

Better Late Than Never


Rockets' remarkable run toward the playoffs sparking hope and excitement

West Medlin
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Just who exactly are these Rockets? Over the last month, this team has undergone a remarkable transformation into one of the NBA’s most exciting clubs to watch. They have collectively caught fire and the Lowry-Hayes triple-double outburst was kind of like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction: a remarkable, albeit completely unexpected, performance. Suddenly, the Rockets have gone from a team mired in mediocrity, to a glistening example of “where amazing happens.”

It’s not just that the team has gone 12-3 since the All-Star break or that they’re one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now. There’s also something to be said for watching players mature and grow into their roles on a team. It’s hard to describe, but there’s an extra level of satisfaction watching players you feel are “your own” improve and succeed as the season progresses: seeing Kyle Lowry grow into the team’s starting point guard and fearless leader; witnessing Chase Budinger overcome a miserable shooting slump to start the season before subsequently blossoming when given starters minutes; and watching Chuck Hayes master the art of the left-handed finish are all rewarding beyond their immediate benefit to the Rockets’ playoff hopes.

This isn’t a team of max-level salaried players. It’s pretty safe to assume there are no accusations of superstar collusion alleging that Lee, Patterson and Dragic secretly agreed to join forces on Houston’s roster. In fact, the only significant “decision” in Houston’s offseason occurred when Brad Miller chose to reunite with Rick Adelman.

Instead, the Rockets carry themselves with a blue-collar attitude that illustrates how teams really can become greater than the sum of their parts.

It’s easy to root for these guys. They represent what we want success to look like: hard work, perseverance, and an ability to overcome hardship. The fact that the team struggled earlier in the year makes the experience of watching Houston’s late-season push that much more enjoyable. Success was not given to this team. Instead, it was the product of their ability to rise above early season obstacles.

Those troubles hit hard and hit often: Yao and all the expectations inherent within his return, going down after playing only a handful of games; the frustrating occasions when the Rockets would inexplicably play down to the level of their competition; and as I watched my favorite team frequently struggle to close out opponents, the fourth quarter of games started to resemble my finals from law school: panic-inducing and usually resulting in disappointment.

Looking back, however, it’s those exact challenges that give Houston’s recent success such meaning. The Rockets are playing inspired basketball and for a team that was consistently inconsistent early on, Houston’s run beginning in late February and extending through March has provided something that came perilously close to vanishing months ago: hope.

Though many were prepared to close the book on the Rockets’ playoff hopes, the team’s play over the past month reveals that the story isn’t over. The plot continues to thicken as Houston proceeds with its winning ways. I, for one, certainly want to see how this one ends.

Don’t forget that this year the Rockets’ marketing team came up with the slogan “Red Rising.” It stood for a lot of things, but mostly summarized the hope that all Rockets fans felt at the beginning of the season. And yet, as grim as things may have appeared early on, the motto apparently fits after all. Red is finally rising. It just took a little longer, and looks a little different, than anticipated. Which is fine by me. Few things in life are better than unexpected joy. And with a little more late-season magic, the Rockets may very well conjure the kind of happiness their fans have been craving all along.

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