Harden and company need help for another long playoff run

Rockets on Texans path this season

P.J. Tucker is a key member of the Rockets. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rockets have been on quite a roll lately after starting the season underachieving. Their best player has been out of this world as they have strung together a couple solid winning streaks and have climbed out of the cellar, straight into first place in their division. Sound familiar Texans fans? The point is, your basketball team is on the same path as your favorite football team and, spoiler alert, it doesn't have a happy ending.

As we all know by now, the Texans ran off nine straight wins after starting 0-3 to become the first team since 1998 to make the playoffs after starting the year with three straight defeats. They ended up winning the division as an added bonus, but were quickly bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by their division rivals, the Indianapolis Colts. The team was just good enough to capitalize on a weak schedule and some opponent miscues along the way to turn around their regular season and trick the sports world into believing they were a possible playoff contender. Unfortunately the post season proved to be their truth serum as their weaknesses were exposed and their best players were unable to carry the load, pick up the slack and get them to the promised land. Watson, Watt and company will get plenty of awards and recognition for the great year that they had, but the lack of a complete team made for an end to the season that turned out to be quite sad.

The Rockets have been playing great basketball for the last month and have gone from the second worst record in the Western Conference to a solid playoff team only one game out of homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. James Harden has been on another planet as he has become the leading candidate to win a second consecutive league MVP, while single-handedly carrying his squad night after night with record-breaking stat lines. Harden broke the Rockets record for most 40 point games in a season, including 5 games in a row, and he tied Kobe Bryant for the NBA record for consecutive 30+ point games at 16, after scoring 38 in a loss last night to the Magic. He has done most of the heavy lifting while Chris Paul rehabs another hamstring injury and Eric Gordon rests a knee issue, but how long can he keep it up? A better question might be, even when Gordon and Paul come back, do they have enough firepower to make another run to the Western Conference Finals?

If you answered my last question "no" then you better hope Daryl Morey dives deep into his contact list and starts looking at ways to fill out his rotation and roster and make this team better before it's too late. The main difference between this year and other years, is that the Rockets don't have a surplus of talent on the team that they can afford to part with in order to improve and upgrade the roster. Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker have the most value around the league but the team can ill afford to part ways with either, as they both have stepped u their game and proved to be irreplaceable to Mike D'Antoni and his staff. Gordon has been up and down, but he is better than anyone else they have when it comes to scoring, shooting, defense and versatility. If Morey was to trade Gordon in a package, he would have to get back a Gordon-like player and more to make the trade worthwhile. His latest injury and struggles from the floor this season has made that possibility less and less likely. Tucker on the other hand has become more and more valuable on both ends of the floor and in the lockeroom, to the point that he has become untouchable. The fact that he has been friends with Chris Paul since childhood and is one of Harden's best friends on the squad only adds to the chances that he will remain a member of Red Nation for the rest of the season and beyond. So, if a trade doesn't seem to hold the answers to improving this year's team, what other types of moves could be the boost the squad needs?

The moves that have produced the best return on investment this year have been the savvy free agent pickups like Danuel House Jr. and Austin Rivers. The two have fit right in from the first day and played a style that makes it easy for D' Antoni to trust them and insert them right in the rotation and eventually the starting lineup. I really think the best chance for Houston to catch lightning in a bottle and find a player or two that may be able to strengthen the team by adding depth and talent, is by keeping an eye on the waver wire and potential buyouts of veteran players who are set free to give younger talent a chance to play. Tyson Chandler is a perfect example. He was released by the Suns after negotiating a financial settlement and was picked up by the Lakers to add leadership and depth to their front court. He has been huge for LeBron and company since he joined the Lake Show. Rivers has done similar things for Houston and so has House. Maybe a few more opportunities turning other teams' trash into H-town treasures is the way to go in getting this team Warriors ready and stocked for another run? Let's hope so, otherwise it may be an end to the season eerily similar to the one suffered by the football team down on Kirby just over a week ago.

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't ugly either. That just seems par for the course whenever the Rockets play the Pelicans. Regardless of injuries on either side, these two teams just always manage to play each other competitively, whistle to whistle. Houston pulled out ahead tonight, but it wasn't without a fight.

Jrue Holiday and Josh Hart in particular, did an excellent job defending James Harden tonight, forcing him to shoot 3 for 11 from deep. The Pelicans often swarmed Harden and forced him to give up the basketball. It helps the Eric Gordon is starting to find a rhythm from three-point range (4 of 7 tonight and 3 of 7 Saturday against Chicago). Westbrook was also forceful offensively to help pick up for Harden's early struggles.

Clint Capela has really stepped it up for Houston these past four games (11 points, 20 rebounds, and 2 blocks tonight on 5 of 6 shooting). Capela has managed to grab 13 or more rebounds in Houston's last four outings. Capela had struggled greatly to start the season, forcing head coach Mike D'Antoni to rely on smaller units with P.J. Tucker at center. However, the Rockets aren't going to go as far as they want in the postseason if they aren't getting a strong 30 minutes a game from Clint Capela, so it's encouraging that he's starting to play well.

The Rockets took a 7-point lead after a surge from Westbrook to end the first quarter and for the most part, held that lead for the duration of the game. New Orleans made a strong push in the fourth quarter the battle back, but at that point it was too little too late.

Star of the game: James Harden didn't have a the best three-point shooting game, but still managed to log 39 point, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in the process on 62.6% true shooting. He was effect at driving to the rim, drawing fouls, getting floaters, and finding shooters. Harden scored 19 of his points in the 4th quarter, effectively dragging Houston to victory despite a strong late push by New Orleans that cut the lead from 17 at one point down to as low as 6.

Honorable mention: Russell Westbrook was dialed in from the first quarter, particularly from mid-range where he scored 12 of his points on 6 of 8 shooting. In a night where Harden was really struggling to gain a rhythm, Westbrook really helped pick up the slack for Houston especially in the units without Harden. Westbrook finished the game with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals on an efficient 57.1% true shooting. It's unlikely Westbrook will shoot that well from mid-range this season, but on nights where he's on like this, the Rockets will gladly take it.

Key moment: Russell Westbrook's stretch to end the first quarter gave the Rockets a 7-point lead and the Pelicans were never able to capture the lead from that point forward. Westbrook scored or assisted on the final 6 points of the quarter (within 56.8 seconds) and was forceful defensively.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston to play the Los Angeles Clippers at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

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