Work in progress

Rockets believe they haven't reached their "peak" yet

The Houston Rockets have won 7 out of their last 10 games and on Sunday night, they climbed to the third seed in the Western Conference. All things considered, that's a pretty good spot for a title contender to be in early January. However, if you ask them, they have higher aspirations than that.

"Not bad," said Mike D'Antoni said at practice. "We want to be first. We still have a goal to finish first. [It's] definitely doable."

As it stands, the Rockets are 4.5 games behind the first seeded Los Angeles Lakers. It's not impossible to catch up, but it will require a high level of excellence to close out the season. It would be a level that they themselves will tell you they haven't exhibited yet.

"We still haven't hit our peak yet," said Eric Gordon. "We're doing what we need to do as far as winning games, but we haven't had games where we've shown complete dominance."

Gordon is spot on when he discusses the Rockets' lack of dominant games this season. Though the Rockets are the third seed in the Western Conference, they trail teams like the Clippers (fourth seed) and Mavericks (sixth seed) in Net RTG, per cleaningtheglass.com. When you subtract garbage time, the Rockets are only beating teams by 4.9 points per 100 possessions. There are five teams in the NBA with higher differentials and the top two (Boston and Milwaukee) have nearly double the number.

"We'll be able to tell by how much we're clicking by having big leads in a game, sustaining a lead throughout the game, and having good starts," said Gordon. "That's when I can tell that we're locked in and really focused on what we need to do to win a championship."

As Gordon mentioned, the Rockets have not started games as well as they would like to. In first quarters this season, Houston is barely edging out their opponents (2.9 points per 100 possessions - 11th in the NBA). They tend to ramp it up in the second quarter (8.0 net rating - 6th), they peak in the third quarter (12.0 net rating - 4th), and then let go of the rope in a major way in fourth quarters (-2.3 net rating - 21st). The bottom completely falls out, specifically on defense where the Rockets have allowed 111.8 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters (25th). This kind of inconsistent effort has contributed to why the Rockets haven't blown out teams as much as they would like.

However, there's still time to change that and it starts with convincingly beating bad teams. This is something the Rockets have struggled mightily with this season. Among the top six teams in the Western Conference, the Rockets have the worst winning percentage against below .500 teams (16-6 record).

"That's been our achilles heel since I've been here - kind of playing down to our competition," said P.J. Tucker. "For us, I think it's more challenging to win those games, because in all the big games, we usually play well. In not so big games, we don't bring as much energy, as much focus, and we tend to get in trouble. So, it's just the focus."

They will have an opportunity to improve upon that record this month as four out of their next five opponents are below .500. The Hawks in particular have the worst winning percentage in the NBA this season (8-29 record). There's no such thing as a guaranteed win in the NBA, but the Hawks are close. Houston dismantled Atlanta on November 30th (final score of 158-111), but as Tucker said, the Rockets can't rest on their laurels.

"Usually in those games we don't get off to a great start," continued Tucker. "When teams aren't doing so well, they get it going early. Then, they'll be trouble later in the game. So, we'll look to be aggressive early for sure."

To Houston's credit, they've played most of the season without a healthy roster. Wednesday will mark the third straight game since Clint Capela and Eric Gordon both returned to the lineup. They still have time to correct their inconsistencies and try and reach a new level of excellence if they hoan in on their defense and late game issues.

"The season is going to be the season," said Tucker. "We're going to have ups and downs. As long as everybody can stay consistent, as long as we stay healthy, I think we'll keep improving and keep looking better."

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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