Rockets just keep rolling toward best record in the league

James Harden and Chris Paul are riding the wave to the best record in basketball. Houston Rockets/Facebook

I’ve tried to stay grounded watching this Rockets squad all season.

I’ve continuously attempted to provide objective weekly win predictions, yet as the season has progressed this team has turned more and more into some video game version of a basketball team that no one has figured out the answer to. Somewhere along the line James Harden became a near shoe-in for the league MVP award. Somewhere along the line the entire team adopted bought in to Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s so wholeheartedly that even when Houston’s superstars are out, opposing teams are crushed and their fans are left asking “Who scored on us?”

The Rockets survived a Tuesday night thriller versus Portland followed by a Thursday night mud fight against the Pistons, before cruising to victories Saturday night and Sunday night. Sunday night’s victory was their ninth straight and since last week Houston has increased its Western Conference lead on the Golden State Warriors (YET AGAIN) to 5.5 games. The Rockets maintain the best record in the league, and Saturday night they set a franchise record for most wins in a single season ever. That includes both championship seasons.

If you aren’t already, it is officially time to get excited for the playoffs. This team is special.

Game 71: Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers (W, 115-111)

Tuesday's matchup pitted the Rockets against a white-hot Trail Blazers team riding a 13-game win streak, and the result was far from disappointing. In one of what has become a rare opportunity for another NBA team to prove itself an actual threat, the No. 3-seeded Portland Trail Blazers unloaded everything they had against Rockets, maintaining a close game throughout.

The problem, however, is that James Harden was also interested in winning this matchup.

Harden poured in 42 points on the way to a very tightly contested victory against the third best team in the western conference, including two absolutely vicious step back daggers late in the fourth to seal it. Chris Paul added 22 points, but pulled up injured in the very last few seconds of the game with a tweaked hamstring

Game 72: Rockets vs Detroit Pistons (W (OT), 100-96)


Houston was without Chris Paul in its attempt to close out the season series versus Detroit with a win, and thanks to an abysmal shooting night from behind the arc it took an extra quarter of basketball to deliver. The Rockets went 12-51 from beyond the arc, and looked sloppy throughout. Yet, in one of their sloppiest games, they were still never out of it thanks in part to an even worse night from three-point land from the Pistons. Detroit struggled at a 6-38 clip from three, and despite out rebounding the Rockets 72-60, Harden once again staged some late game heroics (this time defensively) to force an overtime that would inevitably pave the way to a Rockets victory. Eric Gordon would lead the team with 22 points, while Harden followed with 21 thanks largely in part to some late game fouling. The win tied Houston for the most franchise wins in a single season ever.

Game 73: Houston vs New Orleans Pelicans (W, 114-91)

The Rockets/Pelicans series prior to Saturday night had been a season’s worth of fantastic, closely contested matchups that were decided by an average of 5 points or less. Saturday night, however, the Rockets showed no interest in another such game. A 29-16 first, followed by a 35-21 second quarter fueled a statement victory, with Harden scoring 27 points in three quarters. Eric Gordon followed with 19 points, on 4-9 from three-point range. Clint Capela--with his best Anthony Davis impression--added 18 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 blocks. The win set a new franchise record for wins in a single season.

Game 74: Houston vs Atlanta Hawks (W, 118-99)

For a third straight night Chris Paul sat due to injury as the Rockets closed out the week against an unimposing Atlanta Hawks team. It was a contest that was put away very early by the home team, thanks in part to contributions from the bench while Paul continued to nurse his hamstring. Gerald Green led the team with 25 points in a matchup that saw Houston’s lead as high as 26 at one point. Gordon followed with 22 points, while Harden added an 18 point, 10 rebound, and 15 assist triple-double; because of course he did. The seemingly effortless victory was Houston’s ninth in a row and their 60th win on the season.

Looking ahead

The Rockets return to the court with home games Tuesday and Friday against the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns respectively before a Sunday away game against the San Antonio Spurs ends the week.

This is probably one of the easiest weeks Houston has had in months as Chicago has dropped the past five in a row, and Phoenix the past eleven. San Antonio, while typically a perennial contender has proven to be completely outmatched against Houston all season, and I don’t see anything changing this week. I normally don’t expect a team to win all of its matchups in a week, but if there was a week to bank on it, this would be the one.

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Keep an eye on Tank Dell this Sunday. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images.

I remember thinking how in the world can these little frail guys survive at the NFL level? I mean, I saw Joe Theismann and Ed McCaffrey's legs snap. Drew Bledsoe got his chest caved in. Seeing 300-plus pound men cry when injured is humbling. So when a guy like Tank Dell comes along, I'm always a bit apprehensive. Especially when they come with a ton of hype.

For every eight to ten big strong players that get hurt, there's one or two little fellas that have relatively healthy careers. The comp that came to mind when looking at Tank was DeSean Jackson. Listed at 5'10 and weighing a heavy 175 pounds, Jackson was arguably the best “small guy” in NFL history. Dell being about two inches shorter and about ten pounds lighter, while also playing a similar role, is in line to be a similarly electrifying type of player. I put my assessment on the line and doubled down with my predictions on what his, and others' season totals will look like last week:

Tank Dell: 68 catches, 1,105 yards and 6 touchdowns- Dell will be a really good slot, but has some outside skills. Namely, his speed. He's more slippery than if Mick had greased that chicken before Rocky tried catching it. I could see his production going up as the season gets longer because Stroud will begin to look for him more and more as they build chemistry. Yes, I know I only have him with six scores. Keep in mind this is a run first offense. At least that's what we can deduce from looking at where it came from in San Francisco.

In his debut game last week vs the Ravens, he notched three catches for 34 yards on four targets. He was tied for third on the team in targets with Noah Brown and Mike Boone. While Robert Woods and Nico Collins were one and two in targets last week, I think Dell will ascend that list starting this week. Word came down that Noah Brown is headed to IR, meaning he'll miss at least the next four weeks. The chemistry he and fellow rookie C.J. Stroud have developed is palpable. From working out together, to attending UH games together, these two seem to have a nice bond already.

Woods is a solid vet two years removed from an ACL injury. Collins was a third rounder with size who hasn't done a whole lot. Dell is easily the most exciting option at receiver this team has. John Metchie III was expected to be the next guy up. Unfortunately, cancer had him take a backseat, until now. Metchie is back at practice this week, so a debut is imminent. He could potentially challenge for more playing time, but it may take him some time to get used to things and get going again.

As far as my statistical prediction for his season, he only needs to average four catches for 67 yards per game, and get a touchdown every two to three games for the remainder of the season. Given Brown being out the next few games, Metchie not quite being up to speed, Woods being an older player on a short-term deal, and Collins not really being what everyone thought he could be, it leaves things wide open for Dell to step up.

Playmakers come in all shapes and sizes. Levon Kirkland was a 300-pound middle linebacker in a 3-4. Doug Flutie led teams to playoff wins as a 5'9 quarterback. In football, size matters. The bigger, stronger guys normally win out. When it comes to receiving and returns, you want speed, quickness, and agility. Dell has that in spades. Add his competitive nature and chemistry with his quarterback and you have a recipe for a star in the making. I know I'm not the only one hoping the Texans continue Tank-ing.

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