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Ready For Launch

Having reached one goal, Rockets ready to begin quest for much bigger prize

HOUSTON - The Rockets’ postseason run will begin at Toyota Center.

The club’s season-long goal finally became a reality Monday night as the club clinched home-court advantage in the opening round in perhaps the sweetest way possible: by putting the finishing touches on their first season sweep of the San Antonio Spurs since 1989.

No, Houston did not face anything close to a full strength San Antonio squad during its 104-98 win, but that hardly did anything to take away or tarnish the Rockets’ accomplishment – not after 81 games worth of blood, sweat and tears, and certainly not after the roller coaster ride that bookended both the start and the close of Houston’s 2013-14 campaign.

From day one of the season when Patrick Beverley limped off the court against Charlotte with an abdominal injury, the Rockets have seemingly had to scratch and claw just to achieve the kind of consistency that frequently comes only with good health. To be sure, injuries are an inherent part of life in the NBA. Every team encounters them, and the best clubs – like the Rockets’ I-10 rivals – find a way to survive, and sometimes even thrive, amid the experience. For a Houston team attempting to incorporate several new pieces – and one positively massive one – those nagging ailments represented not only a challenge, but an opportunity: a chance to show resolve and resilience, an occasion to display genuine growth and maturity.

More than five months later, that’s precisely what the Rockets have done. Though the requisite anxious moments and speed bumps appeared from time to time, Houston’s players and coaches found a way to navigate the season’s ups and downs and trials and travails while simultaneously building – bit by bit and block by block – the foundation necessary for true title contention. Have they finished the task or arrived at their desired destination? Of course not. But by establishing themselves as the kind of team capable of boasting both a top-10 caliber offense and defense, the Rockets managed to enter the rarified air historically required of clubs that dare dream of lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy in mid-June. That is not the final step, but it is a significant one, reinforcing Houston’s upward trajectory and the notion that the team remains on the proper path.

This weekend the next leg of that journey begins. It will start where the Rockets had hoped it would, on their home floor amid a sea of red. And just as importantly, if not more so, it appears as if it will begin with the specter of injury finally behind them. One game after Pat Beverley returned and helped save Houston’s bacon by matching his career-high in a comeback win against New Orleans, Dwight Howard looked nothing short of dominant while racking up 20 points and 17 rebounds versus the Spurs. Again, small steps, but massively important ones all the same because, as the last few weeks have hammered home yet again, the Rockets are going to require all hands on deck to reach the dizzying heights to which they aspire.

“Everything hasn’t been perfect the last couple weeks but tonight was a huge win,” said Chandler Parsons after the game. “Anytime you beat San Antonio four times that’s a big accomplishment.

“(Clinching home-court) was huge. That was all our coaching staff said, all (General Manager) Daryl Morey said, all we’ve said all year long is we need to get home-court. Anything can happen from there.”

54 wins proved to be the team’s magic number necessary to reach its oft-stated preseason goal. But this weekend the slate will be wiped clean and only one number will matter from here on out. The race to reach 16 is almost underway. And a Rockets team that spent more than its fair share of time on the regular season roller coaster can now take comfort in and derive confidence from the fact that, no matter the thrills, spills and turbulence encountered, it still found a way to come together, to grow and to forge a rock-solid foundation.

Now they must build upon it. And though the postseason flames that wither, temper and test will be cranked up even higher, the process for survival remains the same as it ever was: endure and evolve in such a way as to emerge stronger than ever before. Forget about roller coasters and other assorted carnival rides – the days of fire and cold steel are nearly here. The time has come for the Rockets to put their mettle on full display and for Toyota Center to transform into a blazing furnace.

That is what the team fought for. That is what they earned. But what mustn’t be forgotten is that every bit of it was in pursuit of something far greater. Home-court was never meant to be the end, but rather the beginning. It is a launching pad. And the Rockets are ready for take-off.