The Gauntlet Awaits

Rockets ready to embark upon toughest two-week stretch of the season
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - Ready or not, the gauntlet is coming for the Houston Rockets.

With Saturday’s 118-110 win over the Pistons, Houston became the seventh team to reach the 40-win mark this season. But beginning this Tuesday when the two-time defending champion Miami Heat come to town, five of the Rockets’ next seven games will be against clubs that have already pushed their way past that particular plateau.

This stretch promises to push Houston’s players and coaches in ways that games against lesser teams simply can’t. No offense to Detroit, but there’s a reason they currently find themselves 13 games under .500 and four full games outside the playoff picture in the lackluster Eastern Conference. Teams like the Pistons do not represent the bar by which the Rockets wish to measure themselves. Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City – they do.

Are the Rockets ready for the challenge that awaits? There’s really only one way to find out. You can’t simulate LeBron James steamrolling his way down the floor in transition, Kevin Durant coming off a pin-down, or Indiana’s asphyxiating defense on the practice court – it has to be faced head on.

To that end, Houston ought to be relishing, rather than dreading, the opportunity that lies before them over the course of the next two weeks. This is not just a measuring stick, but the ultimate postseason prep course. Once the end of April rolls around and the playoffs begin, the lights get brighter, the competition tougher and every single possession is more precious than platinum and holds more value than bitcoin. The Rockets allowed Detroit to climb back into Saturday night’s contest in large part because they let their foot off the gas after making the construction of a 25-point lead look no harder than building a tower out of Lego. One assumes, however, that there will be no such temptation to ever ease up with the likes of LeBron and company on the other side of the floor. Houston’s focus will have to be razor sharp and its execution precise, not just for a single half but for the full 48 minutes. This coming test, then, promises to be an exam that’s just as much about the mental aspects of the game as it is the physical.

With that in mind, the Rockets should be buoyed by the fact that Terrence Jones regained the form that had caused his stock to skyrocket this season, racking up double-double production to the tune of a team-leading 22 points and 10 rebounds. He won’t need to duplicate that stat line every night, but Houston most definitely needs him to deliver the same sort of energy going forward. Those extra possessions he creates with his offensive rebounding and his fast break finishing form an integral piece of the Rockets’ puzzle, and each will be critical in Houston’s matchups against the NBA’s cream of the crop – both over the course of the next two weeks and in the playoffs as well.

By virtually every meaningful statistical measure, the Rockets have established themselves as a legitimate title contender. They own a top-five offense, a top-10 D and the best record in the league since January 1. No, they won’t be able to win a championship or hang any banners based on what happens during the formidable stretch that now awaits them. What they can do, however, is make tangible, meaningful progress on their journey toward ultimately accomplishing those things provided they use this opportunity to continue learning, growing and steeling themselves for the long playoff run they hope to have.