Rockets keep acing every test, roll through another unbeaten week

James Harden and the Rockets continue to roll. Kevin C. Cox

A week after watching the longest winning streak of the season come to an end, the Rockets showed zero cause for concern as they racked up another four wins against four playoff contenders on their way to closing out one of the best seasons in franchise history. Houston maintains the best record in the NBA, and have since increased their grasp on the number one seed in the western conference to three games. The Rockets also clinched the Southwest Division and have already surpassed last season’s win total.

Game 67: Rockets at San Antonio Spurs (W, 109-93)

The Rockets took on the Spurs Monday for the third time this season. The previous three matchups had all resulted in blowout Rocket victories, so the odds weren’t exactly in the Spurs favor to begin with. When it was announced prior to tip-off that San Antonio would be taking the court without Lamarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili, their chances looked even more bleak. A 19-4 run out of the gate by the Rockets confirmed that theory.

After the Spurs first score, the Rockets never trailed in the game. A comfortable lead ballooned even further after a third quarter run, and the Rockets left San Antonio with an easy victory. James Harden shook off a slow start to lead the team with 28 points. Chris Paul added 18 points as well as 9 assists.

Game 68: Rockets vs Los Angeles Clippers (W, 101-96)

If you were expecting past experience to predict future performance, you would have been very surprised at the game. The Rockets summarily dismantled the Clippers in their last matchup, and Rockets fans were ready to watch a repeat performance on their home court Thursday.

They did not get what they wanted.

What they did get was a highly competitive, very chippy game that wasn’t decided until the very last minute. A back and forth first half gave way to the first sustained lead in the third by the Clippers. Halfway through, though, the Rockets would storm back to keep the game close, and in the end James Harden would seal the victory with a step back jump shot over Austin Rivers late in the fourth. Harden would finish with 24 points. Eric Gordon went 7-of-9 from three, finishing with 23 points.

Game 69: Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans (W, 107-101)

In their third matchup this season, the Rockets headed to The Big Easy for a rubber game against a Pelicans team that has proven to be a difficult out for Houston this season. Sunday’s game was no different.

In what has seemed to be a noticeable pattern this season, the Rockets started slow, but were propelled to a victory behind a second half offensive explosion. Leading 60-54 at the half, Houston stormed out of the gates in the third, pushing their lead to as high as 20 points. The Pelicans would chip away at the lead, but the advantage the Rockets had already established proved to be too much. Harden led the Rockets with 32 points and 11 rebounds, while Chris Paul added 21.

Game 70: Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves (W, 129-120)

The second game of back-to-backs are always a cause for concern, but this season the Rockets have seemed to be unphased by much of anything. Sunday night was more of the same as Houston took control early and rode yet another massive lead into a victory. Minnesota would stage a late game comeback, but would ultimately fail. Houston led by as much as 25 before the rally, and with the game as close as five in the closing minutes the Rockets executed clutch shots to secure the win, which surpassed last season’s win total. Harden lead once again with 34 points and 12 assists. Chris Paul followed with 18 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists. Clint Capela added 16 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Looking ahead

The Rockets are back in action this Tuesday against a red-hot Portland team, followed by a home matchup Thursday against the Detroit Pistons. The end of the week will see Houston taking on New Orleans at home for the last time this season on Saturday, followed by a Sunday home game against the Atlanta Hawks.

Portland is currently riding a 13-game win streak, but have yet to take either of the two matchups against Houston this season. More than likely this matchup will be decided in the paint, and while the Rockets have won inside during the first two matchups, they also haven't played a Trail Blazers team with Myers Leonard and Jusuf Nurkic at full strength.

Thursday’s game against Detroit will be the second and final matchup between the two teams. Detroit took the first game of the regular season series even with star center Andre Drummond sidelined with injury. Since then, the Pistons traded for Clippers big man Blake Griffin. However they’ve gone 1-4 in their last five games.

New Orleans is currently scraping and clawing for a playoff spot in the log-jam at the bottom of the western conference, and every matchup this season with the Rockets has been a dogfight. An increased sense of urgency as the season draws to a close could be problematic for Houston next Saturday night.

Atlanta travels to Houston Sunday night to close out the season series, and little evidence exists that this will be a competitive contest. Expect the Rockets to cruise through this matchup.

While another undefeated week is entirely possible, it is not forecast with as much confidence as last week. Portland will be this week’s toughest test, followed by New Orleans, Detroit, and Atlanta. At the absolute worst, I see a 2-2 week.

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The Texans didn't have an answer for Derrick Henry. Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Romeo Crennel made a valorous call that might have costed the Houston Texans from winning their second consecutive game on Sunday. Up by seven with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter, Crennel decided to call a two-point conversion following Deshaun Watson's one-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks.

During the two-point conversion, Watson had a look at an open Randall Cobb, but Titans' defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons got a hand on the ball to deflect the pass. The failed conversion allowed the Titans to take a 42-36 victory over the Texans inside Nissan Stadium. Tennessee scored 13 unanswered points, which included a seven-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown to send the game into overtime.

"I think I would do it again," Crennel said during his media availability on Monday. "You are on the road against a divisional opponent who is undefeated, and if you could get that two-point conversion — you shut the door on them. We had a guy open, but unfortunately, the ball got tipped and we did not make it. I would do it again because it was a good choice."

The decision to not kick the field goal caused somewhat of an uproar, but it is understandable why Crennel made the call. Crennel had faith in Watson to put the Texans in a position to close the game, similar to his 4th-and-4 call during last week's victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the end, Crennel's risky decisions could stem from the lack of faith he has in the Texans' depleted defense.

Houston's defense hit an all-time low against the Titans. They gave up a franchise-worst 601 total yards — with Derrick Henry accounting for 212 yards on 22 carries. But despite their struggles against the run, the Texans' secondary were just as faulty. They gave up a total of 338 yards through the air and allowed Tannehill to go 8-for-9 down the field during the Titans' final drive of regulation.

Had Houston's defense made a stop during the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, the Texans could have ended the game 2-0 under their interim head coach.

"I wanted to go ahead and get the two points — I felt like that would have put the game out of reach for them," Crennel said. "If we had gotten it, we would have been in much better shape. But we did not get it. We did not perform well in overtime, and they [Titans] won the game."

Following Sunday's heartbreaking loss, Texans safety Justin Reid said it best, "Had we converted on the two-point conversion, this would be a totally different conversation. So it is what it is."

Up next, the 1-5 Texans will look to bounce back from defeat against the 4-1 Green Bay Packers, inside NRG Stadium on Sunday. Kick-off is at 12:00 PM CT.

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