We're past the 1/3 mark of the season and I think the playoff picture is starting to clear up. If the playoffs started today, the Rockets would host the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the 1st round. In my pre-season prediction article I predicted the Rockets to finish 38-28 and finish 7th in the West; they're on pace for 39-40 wins in this short 66-game season. The biggest reason for the surge in the standings is their improved play on the road. Before this current 3 game win streak, their road record was just 3-8. They're not just sneaking by though during this road winning streak, they're winning by an average of 8 points per game. However, they can't pat themselves on the back yet though because they're closer to being out of the playoffs than they are to being in 2nd place (1 1/2 games ahead of 9th place Portland).
Can they sustain this level of success? If they do, it'll be a total team effort. I'd be quicker to dismiss their improved play if it was simply the work of one of their better players getting hot. If Kyle Lowry or Luis Scola were winning games by themselves with improbable 40 point scoring nights, then I'd expect them to start losing once that guy cooled off. However, Lowry shot just 5-13 last night, and Kevin Martin has scored just 6 points over their last two games. They're winning games when their best players struggle, they're winning games because they're growing as a complete team. When the starters go cold, the bench squad is perfectly capable of carrying the load. Last night the Rockets bench outscored their starters 57-39; having 10 guys that you can rely on is a luxury very few teams have.
I can't describe how impressed I've been with the bench recently, even Chase Budinger who've I've criticized more than once. Goran Dragic had 11 points and 11 assists last night, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Lee have both scored double-digits in 5 of their last 6 games, and Chase Budinger has averaged 16 points per game over the last 3 games with 10 total made 3-pointers. It seems they've even inspired the starters, the ball movement is crisp and even the defense has looked better. The chemistry has improved, they're playing with more confidence, and the confusion on both ends of the court has faded away; they won't win the title, but there's no doubt they're much better than they were last season. If they do sustain this level of play, they have a good chance to pass up the Clippers and Spurs to reach 2nd place in the West. Catching the Thunder won't happen, they're the best team in the West, but the very fact that we can talk about them having home-court advantage in the playoffs is amazing. My 7th seed prediction was pretty optimistic compared to most projections, but the chances of them not only making the playoffs, but advancing doesn't seem too crazy now. Too bad the playoffs don't start today.