The NBA restart in Orlando, Florida has shattered all expectations with the amount of high-quality basketball being played on a nightly basis. Players look fresh and motivated coming back as they battle for playoff spots and positioning.
No team looks as motivated as the Houston Rockets. The team that might just be the best chance at getting an NBA champion that isn't the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or the Milwaukee Bucks.
Those three teams are the heavy favorites to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy and they should be. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are a safe bet to make the Western Conference Finals at the very least. Same with the Clippers, who not only feature all-stars of their own in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but also the deepest bench in the NBA. And, of course, there is the Bucks, led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
While there are a number of others that appear to be legitimate title contenders, no team has the ceiling of Houston. Of course, the floor is a little lower too, which has been the reason they are grouped more with the likes of the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics rather than the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks.
The Rockets can be a frustrating watch with the inconsistencies they've had throughout the season. One night they can blow out the Lakers, only to get blown out themselves by the lowly Charlotte Hornets. Their up-and-down defense won't ever be the best rebounding team with their zero centers strategy that features all guards and forwards under 6-foot-7. Facing teams with athletic bigs that can score facing the basket will always be a challenge using this strategy.
But this is also one of the most entertaining teams in the association that features two former MVPs in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. No other team has that. This is a team that can shoot any opponent out of the building. Even on a poor defensive night, Westbrook, Harden, and a strong supporting cast of shooters can still pull out a win.
Take Friday's matchup with the Dallas Mavericks for example. Dallas managed to score 85 points in just the first half. The Rockets had no answers, going down by double-digits multiple times throughout the game. Mavericks 7-foot-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis scored over 30 points after exposing the lack of size Houston had down low. He repeatedly went to the foul line with all contests of his shots being at the Latvian's elbow. Yet, Houston was still able to comeback in the second half, and take a 153-149 overtime victory. Most teams in the NBA are not winning if they allow 149 points. The Rockets won't either most of the time, but Friday's win shows how their dynamic offense can get them through any type of game.
Having a deep bench like the Nuggets, or an elite defense like the Toronto Raptors is critical to a deep playoff run, but star power tends to trump all in the NBA. That is why the Rockets should be taken more seriously than anyone in that second-tier of contenders.
Westbrook and Harden together can get the best of anyone. In fact, after Houston defeated Milwaukee on Sunday night, they improved to 8-2 this season against the Bucks, Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Mavericks, and Utah Jazz.
The inconsistencies have crept up on the Rockets too many times for the talent they have, but if this team can continue to play like they have inside the bubble during the playoffs, no one else has a better shot at taking down top-tier teams to win a ring.