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

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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Allen had high praise for Diggs. Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images.

Impersonal as it might seem to have their dynamic on-field relationship end with an exchange of phone texts, Bills quarterback Josh Allen made it clear on Thursday how much receiver Stefon Diggs meant to him during their four seasons together in Buffalo.

Allen made no mention of Diggs’ mercurial temperament or the occasional sideline flare-ups by expressing only praise in his first opportunity to discuss his now-former teammate being traded to the Houston Texans earlier this month.

“Just thanking him for everything that he did for me, and (I’ll) always have a spot in my heart for him. I’ll always love that guy like a brother. And I wish him nothing but the best,” Allen said, in disclosing what he texted to Diggs. “My lasting memory of Stef will be the receiver that helped me become the quarterback that I am today.”

Brought together in March 2020, when Buffalo gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Diggs in a trade with Minnesota, the duo went on to re-write many of Buffalo's single-season passing and scoring records, and lead the team to four straight AFC East titles.

Diggs, now 30, also brought an inescapable sense of drama with him in raising questions about his commitment to the Bills and whether his tight relationship with Allen had soured.

A day before being traded, Diggs posted a message, “You sure?” on the social media platform X in response to someone suggesting he wasn’t essential to Allen’s success.

Whatever hard feelings, if any, lingered as Buffalo opened its voluntary workout sessions this week were not apparent from Allen or coach Sean McDermott, who also addressed reporters for the first time since Diggs was traded.

“Stef’s a great player, really enjoyed our time together. Won a lot of games and he was a huge factor in winning those games. We’ll miss him,” McDermott said. “You never replace a player like Stef Diggs, and we wish him well.”

Allen turned his focus to the future and a Bills team that spent much of the offseason retooling an aging and expensive roster.

Aside from trading Diggs, salary cap restrictions led to Buffalo cutting respected center Mitch Morse, the breakup of a veteran secondary that had been together since 2017, and the team unable to afford re-signing No. 2 receiver Gabe Davis.

“I don’t think it’s a wrong thing or a bad thing to get younger,” said Allen, entering his seventh NFL season. “I think it’s an opportunity for myself to grow as a leader. And to bring along some of these young guys and new guys that we’ve brought in to our team. And that’s an opportunity, frankly, that I’m very excited about."

Despite the departures, the Bills offense is not exactly lacking even though general manager Brandon Beane is expected to target selecting a receiver with his first pick — currently 28th overall — in the draft next week.

Receiver Khalil Shakir enters his third year and tight end Dalton Kincaid enter his second following promising seasons. Buffalo also added veteran experience in signing free agent receiver Curtis Samuel and Mack Hollins.

While Beane acknowledged the Bills lack a true No. 1 receiver, he noted there’s less urgency to fill that spot now than in 2020 because of how much the offense has developed under Allen.

“Now that Josh has ascended to the player he is, is that a requirement? I don’t think so,” Beane said.

Diggs’ role also began diminishing in the second half of last season, which coincided with Joe Brady replacing Ken Dorsey as offensive coordinator. Brady placed an emphasis on adding balance to a pass-heavy attack and getting more receivers involved, which led to an uptick in production for Shakir and Kincaid.

While Diggs’ numbers dropped, Buffalo’s win total increased.

With the Bills at 6-6, Diggs ranked third in the NFL with 83 catches, seventh with 969 yards and tied for third with eight TDs receiving. Buffalo then closed the season with five straight wins in which Diggs combined for 24 catches for 214 yards and no scores.

”(Diggs) meant a lot. You look at the statistics, they don’t lie,” Allen said, in referring to Diggs topping 100 catches and 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons in Buffalo. “I don’t get paid to make changes on the team. I get paid to be the best quarterback that I can be and try to lead the guys on this team.”

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