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Food For Thought

Rockets' latest win reveals latest form of improvement, sets stage for delicious showdown with Pacers

HOUSTON - Some nights you thrive; others you merely survive. Tonight’s contest combined a little bit of both as the Rockets overcame a cringe-worthy start to put the finishing touches on a 101-89 win over the frisky but ultimately overmatched Orlando Magic.

This was most definitely not Houston at its finest as the Rockets allowed an Orlando team not known for feasting upon turnovers to dine on a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of its choosing in the early going. Call it a trap game or mere coincidence if you wish; whatever the case the Rockets spent the vast majority of the first quarter looking nothing like the club that went wire-to-wire over Miami the night before, or the team that’s put together the league’s best record since the calendar flipped to 2014. Houston’s starting five appeared sluggish while the Magic’s midrange jump shooters were scorching, a combination that rather rapidly placed the Rockets in a 14-point hole.

But here’s the thing: These sorts of situations happen all the time in the NBA. Inferior squads beat up on superior teams for a quarter here or a half there; sometimes it even lasts for an entire game and an upset is born. But whether the cause is schedule-related, an emotional letdown, or simply a case of one side catching fire while the other shoots blanks, these circumstances are going to occur over the course of an 82-game season. On a fairly regular basis, too.

But among all the myriad ways the Rockets have righted their ship and made steady progress into the league’s stratosphere during the last two months, one thing that’s frequently been overlooked is the sheer number of times Houston has managed to overcome those less than stellar stretches and found a way to win even while operating at far less than peak efficiency. Earlier in the season, such games seemed to end up as losses more often than not. You can probably recite the list by heart: the Lakers, the Sixers, the Jazz and the Kings (twice). All teams that reside among the league’s lesser lights; all clubs that claimed wins over the Rockets while Houston was still searching for its identity back in November and December.

Hey, it happens. Examine the resume of every title contender and you’re going to find at least a few head-scratching losses on their ledger. But ever since Houston succumbed to Sacramento on New Year’s Eve, the Rockets have not dropped another game to an opponent that came into the contest with a winning percentage below .500. They’ve had their fair share of close shaves since then: barely surviving against the Wizards on two separate occasions; committing straight up larceny on the road in New Orleans; and even experiencing a frightful scare against the woebegone Bucks. But the Rockets dug deep and emerged victorious every single time. That’s not the flashiest feather to place in one’s cap of course, but it does represent yet another indicator of the kind of improvement this team has shown from the start of the season to where it’s at now. That place by the way: bonafide title contention. How's that for a bit of panache?

Wednesday was just the latest example of the Rockets’ resiliency and ability to scrape enough ingredients together to make a meal that delivers the desired end result even if does lack some of the kick and flavor one’s palate typically prefers. Of course, Houston has the ultimate luxury of being able to begin every recipe with a pair of All-Stars as its starting point and there are few elements on earth that can duplicate the degree of culinary impact players like James Harden and Dwight Howard bring to the basketball kitchen. With transcendent talent of the kind they possess, lingering bad tastes can be wiped away in an instant. Houston’s dynamic duo combined for just two points in the second quarter, but so what? They’re a perpetual threat to drop 25 a period later, just as they did tonight. Then throw in some spice in the form of Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, add a dash of Omer Asik’s defense and rebounding and, baby, you’ve got a stew going.

With their team sorely in need of sustenance in Orlando, that quintet served up the main course Wednesday. Last night of course, Patrick Beverley delivered a most delicious dish. And at various times throughout this two-month run, Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Jordan Hamilton and Omri Casspi have added a winning brand of seasoning as well.

If variety is indeed the spice of life, the Rockets and their fans surely are counting their blessings right now as the club continues to flex its muscle and show off the subtle variations it’s been able to make to its formula for success. What’s more, they’re still very much in the process of adding to their repertoire. After having shown it can handle the savvy of the Spurs and Miami’s pace-and-space, Houston now gets a chance to once more try its hand with Indiana’s unique brand of bully-ball. The Rockets lost by 33 the last time they played the Pacers back on December 20. Needless to say, then, they are relishing this latest opportunity to put their hard-earned growth on display.

“The game in Indiana, we didn’t play our brand of basketball,” Howard said when asked about Friday’s impending showdown. “They were a lot better team than we were earlier in the season. We understand the game as a team a little bit better. I think it is going to be a different game and we are looking forward to that matchup.”

Emerging victorious Friday night figures to require ample amounts of both surviving and thriving once again. The Pacers currently find themselves in a bit of a funk, having dropped their second game in a row Wednesday night to the Bobcats. But it’s worth noting Indiana hasn't lost three straight all season. The Pacers promise to enter Toyota Center singularly focused and on a mission, knowing full well that a win over the Rockets would restore their mojo in short order.

Houston wouldn’t have it any other way. Given the concoction the Rockets have been cooking up this calendar year, facing anything less than a fully motivated Indiana team would be a disappointment to the senses. And let’s face it: if the Rockets want to be top chef by the time all is said and done, these are the types of challenges they’ll eventually need to win along the way.