For the first time this season, the Rockets are showing signs of life. It took three games—and three straight losses by 20 points—to find Houston’s pulse, but on Monday night it raced through crucial defensive stands and furious breaks to a much-needed 110–105 win over the Thunder.
What Houston lacked in precision it made up in the more vital markers of energy. This is a team built to run downhill; the collective speed and athleticism of the roster is best harnessed at full bore, which in itself requires a certain defensive spark to get things moving. The Rockets had the damndest time trying to initiate their transition game in their previous games when so many of their defensive possessions ended in exasperation. Teammates glared at one another as yet another unattended opponent cut down the baseline or bombed away from distance for an easy score. Miscommunication was the culprit in some instances, but more often the Rockets had looked listless.
Such is a poor basis for an outfit that sees itself as a running team. Houston allowed Denver to shoot 50.6% from the field and 48.1% from three. It forced all of three live-ball turnovers against Golden State. Miami snoozed through the first half and then torched Houston’s defense in the second, dropping 65 points on just 41 shots. The game against the Thunder was the line in the sand, as it were, for a team that hadn’t yet found cause to get back on defense and dig in.
The fourth game of the Rockets’ season, and the prospect of a fourth straight loss, apparently supplied that cause. Houston’s energy and length forced 18 live-ball turnovers out of the Thunder, creating just the kind of chaos the Rockets need to thrive. It should come as little surprise that both James Harden and the Rockets’ wayward offense ignited with that same spark. Even within a higher-variance system that relies so heavily on three-pointers and foul calls, Houston trends toward offensive and defensive symbiosis. As one goes, so too goes the other. The Rockets can find an exception to that rule on a night when Harden happens to be especially hot from the field or if an opponent unwittingly plays into Houston’s hands, though the best version of the Rockets derives scoring from the team’s defensive energy and an opportunity to set its defense from working off of made baskets.
This was the first time all season the Rockets struck such a balance. There were complications, of course; the lack of a healthy power forward forced Houston to trot out small lineups, some of which hemorrhaged second-chance points and flunked in their secondary rotations. Order will come more naturally once the Rockets don’t have to match up Harden against opposing power forwards or compensate spacing for the sake of some supporting size. Despite those circumstances, however, the Rockets managed to play in a way that more closely aligned with their winning standard.
Even if Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant had scored just enough to make Houston the losers of four straight, coach Kevin McHale found something to work with in this latest effort beyond Harden’s 37 points, Ty Lawson’s double double, or Dwight Howard’s return. This version of the Rockets bore a much stronger resemblance to the ceaseless, frenzied team that sprinted its way to the Western Conference Finals. Decisions on offense were made more quickly. Defensive assignments in the second half were maintained more diligently. Lawson and Harden managed a healthier choreography, culminating in a 1–2 pick-and-roll down the stretch to set up Harden against a smaller defender.
All that went right for Houston on Monday should serve as a reminder: This high-energy, high-pressure team is not who the Rockets are, inherently, but who they need to be. Reaching that level will take high effort and real commitment, sustained over the course of the regular season and more. Houston’s impressive 2014–15 campaign proved it capable of carrying that burden. Now that trial begins again.