Clint Capela has raised his game. Jason Miller
In the past month, the Rockets have gone from a disappointing afterthought to wading chest-deep in the playoff race. That spark leading them to the fifth seed in the Western Conference came at what seemed like the least likely moment as well, as Chris Paul and James Ennis had both gone down with separate injuries. Instead of plummeting further beyond the 10-11 record they entered the month of December with, however, the Rockets ripped off a 13-5 run. Here are three key factors to Houston's resurgence.
Clint Capela has become feral
During this stretch we've watched Clint Capela kick it into an entirely different gear. He's crashed the boards far more efficiently and it's paid off. Capela went from averaging a respectable 11.8 rebounds per game in the first 20 games of the season to 14.3 throughout the Rockets resurgence and an unreal 17.6 rebounds in the last 6 contests. Since December, Capela has registered four 20+ rebound games. He's become an absolute force at an area that Houston was severely lacking in to begin the season and has been a huge reason the Rockets have turned around their season.
The Rockets are finally healthy
It seems contradictory to start by talking about losing one of the Rockets' stars to injury and then talk about how healthy they are, but it's true. While losing Chris Paul hasn't helped, Houston welcomed the return of center Nene, as well as point guard Brandon Knight. The injury issues also le\d to the call up of Danuel House from the G-league who has seemingly become this year's Gerald Green-esque "diamond in the rough" find. Austin Rivers has also been serviceable since his signing in late December, averaging 13.5 points per game, to include a 21-point performance Saturday night. The health and subsequent contributions since have played a big role in turning around Houston's season.
James ever-loving Harden
What Harden has done in the past month is uncharted territory. He averaged 36.4 points per game for the entire month of December, to go with 7.9 assists per game. He joined Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson as the only players to ever string together five 40-point performances in a row, and is still currently setting the record for most 35-point, 5-assist games with 10 at the moment. It has been unreal throughout, with his most recent act of mediocrity defiance coming in the form of a game winning overtime dagger from three over two defenders at Golden State last Thursday night. It's hard to assume that a run of brilliance like this can run throughout the remainder of the season, but it is exactly what the Rockets needed to save their season.
The Rockets have a fantastic week of home cooking starting with a Monday matchup against the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets, followed by a Wednesday tilt against the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Friday the Rockets host the Cleveland Cavaliers before a quick road game Sunday against the Orlando Magic.
Eric Gordon's absence due to a knee injury could play a factor in these matchups, but it's really hard to bet against James Harden for any stretch of time during this current rampage. I expect Houston to at least split the first two games and sweep the rest of the week.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.