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."

With no James Harden, Russell Westbrook, or Clint Capela, the Utah Jazz were justifiably favored to win this game by 14 points. However, through creativity and relentless attack from Houston's backup guards, the Rockets managed to win an unwinnable game on the second half of a grueling Denver/Utah back-to-back.

Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers showed how helpful they could be for Houston off the bench by combining for 71 points on 21 of 43 shooting from the field and 8 of 19 shooting from three-point range. The Rockets went small with P.J. Tucker at center and strangely, the Rockets were able to keep his minutes to only 32. Houston took advantage of their quickness matchup and relentlessly targeted Rudy Gobert on the perimeter.

Danuel House played a ton of minutes due to the lack of guard depth behind Gordon and Rivers and the positional versatility he has, being a 6'7" player. It'll be interesting to see if House or Gordon return to Houston's starting lineup soon. Ben McLemore's minutes have been tracking down and both House and Gordon have been playing much better as of late.

Whatever the case, this was a huge win for the Rockets. Houston's now won 3 out of their last 4 games after losing 4 games in a row. This was supposed to be an automatic loss and the Rockets managed to pull it off. It's the kind of win that could spark a run for a struggling team.

Star of the game: The journey Eric Gordon's gone through since he's been drafted has been a long one. From being traded to dealing with injuries, Gordon's career hasn't been easy by any means. To see him have the night he did tonight was nice. Gordon had a career-high 50 points on 14 of 22 shooting from the field, 6 of 11 shooting from deep, and 16 of 20 shooting from the free throw line.

Honorable mention: Danuel House started the season by earning his way into Houston's starting lineup and has since been in a bit of a slump. Tonight, however, House was integral to Houston's victory. In addition to playing a staggering 46 minutes, House tallied 21 points, 11 rebounds, 5 steals, and 2 assists on 6 of 14 shooting from the field, 2 of 5 shooting from distance, and 7 of 9 shooting from the free throw line.

Key moment: After starting the game down 0-4, the Rockets went on an impressive 11-0 run and never looked back. On the backs of Eric Gordon (50 points), Danuel House (21 points), and Austin Rivers (21 points), Houston led a balanced offensive attack throughout the course of the game and never really waivered.

Up next: The Rockets finish off their road trip on Wednesday by traveling to Portland at 9:00 p.m. to face the Trail Blazers.

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