HOUSTON — You can’t see confidence by counting the number or the distance of steps, but in the manner and the bounce of the stride.
By that measure, these Rockets might be ready to shoot right through the roof of the Toyota Center any day now.
It’s not so much that they’re streaking — which they are — but are settling in. To a style of play that fits them like a bespoke suit and a sense of harmony that hums like a barbershop quartet.
This is not just the Beard & Boys Sideshow with James Harden taking us all on a carnival ride of ridiculous box score numbers and stupendous scoring feats. It has quickly and shockingly grown into something cohesive and congruent.
“I’ve never been on a team like this before,” said forward Ryan Anderson. “I gotta say it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball.”
A 109-87 win over the Mavericks Saturday night made it six in a row, which ties the Grizzlies for the longest active win streak in the league. Just over a quarter of the way into the season, this team that underwent a major renovation during the off season is now 17-7 and has the fourth-best record in the entire NBA.
What makes you think it could be more than just a temporary thing is that the Rockets are not doing it merely by setting the world on fire by filling up the baskets with their beloved 3-ball to carry them to wins night after night. Though they did make 19 of 37 against Dallas.
They are doing it with an all-around complete game that takes advantage of the open spaces that Harden and the shooters create to pile up points in the paint. They are doing it with just enough defense and just enough grit at just the right times to do just enough of the things to get another win. And then another.
The Rockets started the season just 6-5 and looked like they might have needed a map and a compass to find their direction when it all began to kick in. It coincided with the return of the dogged defender Pat Beverley to the lineup after injury and allowed them to settle into a fairly solid rotation.
Since then, the Rockets have won 11 of 13 games in assorted manners. They began the current six-game string when they outshot and out-dueled the headline-grabbing, star-filled Golden State Warriors on the road in a double-overtime thriller that was the best game of the young NBA season.
But the last two wins have been anything but artwork. It was an ugly affair in Oklahoma City that they survived on Friday night and then returned home to take care of struggling Dallas in a classic “trap game” on the end of a back-to-back.
“The easy kind of game to let get away,” said reserve guard Eric Gordon, who shot 6-for-9 from behind the arc. “But we’re becoming a team that knows how to get down to business.”
After five lost seasons in New Orleans, Gordon has been resurrected by coach Mike D’Antoni in Houston as a deadly weapon off the bench and is an early leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
“It wasn’t the role that I was expecting coming into the season, but I can see now that it’s the one where I can help the most,” Gordon said.
Beverley also went from his former starter’s role to the bench. Second year men Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker have been lightning rods. Once-beanpole center Clint Capela makes nights like 13 points and 10 rebounds against the Mavs become routine. Forward Trevor Ariza dropped in a quartet from long range to move into fourth place on the Rockets all-time list for 3-pointers made.
Of course, it all is built upon and revolves around Harden and games where 18 points, 16 assists and nine rebounds look to the untrained eye like it wasn’t his best. Yet it is what has made the difference from last year to this year. The the stat line looks the same, but he’s a different player, both more relaxed and more engaged.
“We’re playing for each other,” Harden said. “Some nights different guys can get it going. Some nights Trevor can get it going. EG (Gordon) has been playing well. Ryan didn’t have a good shooting night, but he did the small things. Patrick hasn’t been scoring the ball a lot but he’s been rebounding and making plays. So we’ve got guys that are doing everything else to win the games and that’s what’s important.”
The bounce in every step is what gives it away.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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