The Houston Rockets were supposed to be an afterthought this season.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with the goal of giving their young prospects all the exposure that they could handle. The Rockets opened with a 1-16 win-loss record which was punctuated by a 15-game losing streak that had their fans already scouring the internet for updates on next year’s potential lottery picks.
However, a hamstring injury suffered by their prized rookie Jalen Green, who was the second overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, triggered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent NBA history.
Green was injured over two weeks ago during the first half of their match with the Chicago Bulls. Houston then proceeded to upset one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, 118-113, to snap their losing streak and kickstart the most unlikely string of wins that the league has seen over the past few seasons.
Another confidence-building win over the Charlotte Hornets in overtime came next and a soft spot in their schedule, where they were pitted with their fellow lottery-bound teams, coincidentally followed suit. The Rockets picked up two more wins versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, eked out a 118-116 victory against the Orlando Magic, and used a strong fourth quarter to overcome the New Orleans Pelicans.
Houston suddenly found itself on a six-game winning streak and no longer at the extreme bottom of the Western Conference standings. However, it seemed like the honeymoon was destined to end with the East’s top seed, the Brooklyn Nets, coming to town.
Instead, the Rockets’ winning run found a fresh pair of legs, sprinkled with a bit of luck, and it continued for at least one more night.
The visiting Nets were coming off a tough 102-99 win over the Dallas Mavericks in the prior evening and their star Kevin Durant was asked about his extended playing time given his recent injury history.
Durant quipped that he might play the entire game the following evening versus Houston, but come tip-off, he was on the sidelines taking the night off to rest. This left his co-star and former Rockets franchise player James Harden alone to carry the load versus the Rockets.
What had the potential to become an easy win for Brooklyn, even with Durant on the sidelines, instead became the crown jewel of Houston’s young season. They used a balanced attack–six players scored in double figures–and emerged with a 114-104 triumph which was not even as close as the final score suggested.
The Rockets have now won seven consecutive games and their winning run has been a classic case of addition by subtraction. It is no coincidence that the first win of this streak came during the game that they lost Green.
The 6’4 shooting guard has the tools to become the league’s next great perimeter scorer with his elite athleticism, wiry frame, and ever-growing skillset. While the shared future of Green and this Houston franchise is bright, the present paints a much darker picture.
Green is still only 19, which means that his body still has a ways to go until it is suited to the rigors of the NBA game. His numbers (14 points per game on 38.2% shooting from the field) have been understandably sub-par, yet it is in the team’s best interests to keep him on the floor and feed him the ball.
They have given him all of the opportunities that he can handle, with the hope that it helps him develop–a fancy way of saying that they are going to lose a lot of games until he becomes good enough to start winning them.
With Green on the sidelines, their future-building exercise has been temporarily put on hold for at least a few weeks by this seven-game winning streak. Christian Wood has flourished during this run since also sliding over to become Houston’s starting center. His finest moment came in their win over the Hornets where he racked up 33 points, 16 rebounds, and two blocks in over 40 minutes of playing time.
Veteran guard Eric Gordon, the only remaining player with ties to Houston’s Harden-led teams that made deep playoff runs, has also played his best basketball of the season in Green’s absence. He has scored 21 or more points in three consecutive games and led them in scoring versus Harden’s Nets with 21 points on eight-of-12 shooting.
Gordon, now 32 years old, remains a lethal scorer and his strong play may attract interest from potential suitors who are gearing up for the postseason.
The relatively unknown Garrison Mathews and Armoni Brooks have made the most of the extended playing time as well and have looked like legitimate NBA rotation players throughout the course of this winning run.
Mathews, who played for the Washington Wizards during the last two seasons, has been particularly impressive as a 6’5 wing with a competent three-point shot and a relentless intensity on defense. He is the kind of player whose prototype blends well with high volume stars and is coveted around the league which may make him, like Gordon, an enticing target for other teams with bigger goals this season.
Meanwhile, Jae’Sean Tate has continued his strong sophomore season and continues to make strides as a secondary playmaker which will only help him latch onto their front office’s plans for the future.
By no means will this run shift their team’s focus to “win-now”, but this feel-good stretch of victories has been a valuable reminder about the importance of hard work, even in the NBA. The players who have had a major influence on this Houston run are journeymen and overlooked names, some of whom are only on this roster or receiving playing time because of their rebuilding thrust.
As the Rockets continue to mold their future around Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and the rest of their talented cornerstones, this seemingly insignificant winning streak should never escape their memory. It is a reminder that effort goes a long way and that playing the right way will, more often than not, lead to its fair share of wins, regardless of how talented a team is.
Up next for Houston is the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks and though it is likely that this run will finally come to an end, it will be foolish to count out this Rockets team after what we’ve seen over the past few weeks.