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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This week the NASCAR cup series heads to the world center of racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the inaugural fourth of July version of the Brickyard 400. This is unprecedented for NASCAR considering over the course of 50 years they are usually in Daytona around this time. While this move was met with a lot of criticism from fans, there is a positive to come from this move though, as the sport will hold their first doubleheader with Indycar. This has been talked about for many years and now it has finally come to fruition. Another new facet of this weekend will be the Xfinity Series running on the road course configuration. This could very well lead to the cup series transitioning from the oval to the road course next season should everything go well when the Xfinity series does it. It will definitely be an interesting weekend.

Last week, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominated the first-ever doubleheader at Pocono. The two drivers finished first and second in both races with Harvick taking race one and Hamlin winning race two. Both of these races came down to pit-road strategy as Harvick was able to eke out a victory by taking two tires and fuel while his teammate Aric Almirola took four. The next day Denny Hamlin pretty much had the whole field covered as he went on to claim his fourth victory of the season. Overall, the idea of two races in a weekend went over well but for the racing itself, it was hard to watch. One of the main issues I had was how the drivers didn't have to shift this week. In my opinion, that was what made this track so unique. It was an oval that had road course characteristics and it usually produced some pretty good finishes. Hopefully this will be addressed when the new car makes its debut in 2022.

One of the big stories going into this week is the announcement a couple of weeks ago that NASCAR will be moving their all-star event to Bristol Motor Speedway. Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a whirlwind of news from the Bubba Wallace story at Talladega, to the doubleheader races last week. A lot of this has put this announcement on the back burner but this is a huge story. The race will be held on Wednesday, July 15th as NASCAR continues with midweek races. This is the first time since 1986 that the race will not be run at NASCAR's home track in Charlotte back when it took place at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The format will be pretty much the same as all the winners from 2019 and 2020 will all have an automatic birth into the race while the rest of the field will run in the open event the day before. The main event will feature four stages including a 15 lap closer around one of NASCAR's most popular race tracks. I think this move was long overdue and I hope that they continue with it in the future. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything wrong with the race at Charlotte but I think a change of pace would be welcomed. I look forward to seeing how this turns out.

As we move on to Indy this weekend, the driver I have winning is Kurt Busch. This weekend will be the 2004 Cup Series champion's 700th career start, and he's won just about every race that there is to be won except this one here at the Brickyard. This week, that is going to change. It hasn't been the most consistent season for the Vegas native, but he still sits tenth in points and right in the thick of the playoff battle. This track isn't his best as he currently has a 19.42 average finish, including a dismal 30th place finish last year. But this week, I think he gets back on track with a victory as he starts second. The veteran has flown under the radar this year, but he has definitely shown spurts where we think he is going to break-out. He also has runs where it seems like him and his team are mid-pack, but there aren't many drivers out there that have the experience he has. And a talented driver like him always finds a way to bounce back. Look for Kurt Busch to take the #1 Monster Energy Camaro to victory lane.

All stats and information used in this article are brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com, the best websites for all NASCAR stats.

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