On Saturday January 7th, the Rockets lost their 4th game in a row in a close contest against Oklahoma City, to drop their record to 2-6; tied for the worst mark in the Western Conference. Almost 3 weeks later, they've won 7 in a row, and 8 of their last 9 to move their record up to 10-7 and put themselves just two games behind the Western Conference's 2nd seeded Denver Nuggets. So what's changed? What turned this group of players into a team capable of ripping off a streak like this?
The biggest factor has to be the schedule. The Rockets faced 9 playoff teams during their first 10 games; they face only 3 likely playoff teams during their next 10 games. During their first 10 games, they faced the Magic, Spurs (2x), Grizzlies, Hawks, Lakers, Clippers, and Thunder (2x); even great teams like the Heat would only be 6-4 or 5-5 against that schedule. Along with facing easier teams like the Bobcats, Pistons, and Wizards, they're also getting to play at home more often; they only played 3 home games during their first 10. It's easy to figure out why they struggled early on when you look at the schedule. In their first 10 they faced playoff teams on the road and went 3-7; in home games against lesser teams, they've gone 7-0 since.
Another reason for the turnaround, they needed time to adapt to their new coach and work in the new players. They fired their coach after last season and because of the lockout, new coach Kevin McHale didn't have the time needed to get his new players ready. On top of that, they had new players like Samuel Dalembert who literally signed the day before the season started who needed time to learn the new playbook, get into shape, and learn the tendencies of his new teammates. Just like in the NFL, teams without any turnover or change had an advantage early on with the lockout-shortened off-season; the Rockets weren't one of those teams. With new parts, it just takes time. Once Dalembert got into shape, rookie Chandler Parsons got comfortable, and the veterans learned the new system; they can begin to play more naturally and the results are going to improve.
Speaking of Chandler Parsons, I must give credit to coach McHale for putting him in the starting lineup over Chase Budinger. Previous coaches were pretty stubborn about playing rookies over a veteran, but McHale realized like we all did that Budinger was basically giving them nothing on the court. McHale doesn't seem to be afraid of mixing and matching lineups and trying new things. I hope he continues to do that because this team is very much still a work in progress.
Going forward, the obvious question is how good can they be? Currently they're tied for 8th in the West, but they have an opportunity to move up. They've beaten the 4th place Spurs twice, they've beaten 6th place Portland, and crushed the Eastern Conference's 2nd place Atlanta Hawks; they're playing well and I believe they're better than a few of the teams ranked ahead of them. They have home games against the Bucks, Wizards, Knicks, and Timberwolves to finish off the month; that looks like 4-0 to me to run their streak up to 11-in-a-row. Do that and it'll set up a great game at San Antonio on February 1st that would not only give the Rockets the tiebreaker over the Spurs with a win, but would likely move them up into 4th place in the West. I still believe the Thunder are the favorites in the West, but the Rockets are on the rise and they'll be exciting to watch.