For young Rockets, only way to go is up - NBC Sports

For young Rockets, only way to go is up
Houston lacks experience, but Harden & Co. have long-term playoff potential
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The Houston Rockets might be inexperienced, but they are on the upswing.
February 8, 2013, 7:02 pm

"I recommended moving Houston 800 miles east, probably maybe 1,200 miles," the Rockets coach said standing outside his team's locker room. "Didn't seem to be a bunch of support for that."

Put the Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference and you'd find a team deep in the heart of the playoff race. Leave them deep in the heart of Texas, and records of 42-40, 43-39 and 34-32 have had them as playoff outsiders the past three seasons.

As the makeover continues under Daryl Morey, so does the tenuous position in the Western Conference playoff race. To a degree, they stand as a target of the Lakers and Mavericks amid those teams' desperation for contention.

The reason the Lakers are pushing Dwight Howard to push past the pain.

The reason the Mavericks are spawning facial hair until they get to .500.

Yet while the Lakers and Mavericks desperately try to remain relevant, the Rockets are creating a new relevance, a mix of youth and talent built for the long run - and built to endure.

A pair of recent games showed the possibilities.

First there were the 23 3-pointers in the 140-109 victory over the Warriors that had Golden State coach Mark Jackson searching for a way to salvage his team's dignity.

The next night, there was a switch to the isolation brilliance of James Harden, who scored 16 points in the fourth quarter in almost bringing the Rockets back from a 17-point deficit against the Heat.

Through it all, McHale's not exactly sure what he has.

"We've had some good stints and we've had some stints where we lost seven in a row," he said. "We're the youngest team in the league as far as years of experience. You're going to have some ups and downs."

For the Lakers and the Mavericks, it has reached critical mass. They have to either get better or perish.

For the Rockets, there only is upside. If not now, then soon enough.

"We should be getting better and I think we are," McHale said. "I think the team's getting a little bit more comfortable with how we have to play on a nightly basis, and falling into that more and more. But I'm sure we'll have a few steps back at some point, that's the nature of having a younger team."

Without those steps back, the Rockets could effectively extinguish the Nowitzki era in Dallas, end the Kobe-Pau-Dwight-Nash run in Los Angeles before it gets legs.

And, to a degree, change the dynamic of what it takes to win.

For all he has achieved with his rebounding and emergence as a first-tier big man in his push for Most Improved Player, center Omer Asik largely remains an afterthought in the offense. No, this is something closer to what Mike D'Antoni featured with the Suns, as Mark Jackson personally witnessed.

"You play to the style of your team and we're set up that way," McHale said of the 3-ball being a Rockets staple. "So not to play that way would be absolutely silly.

"If I had three guys that were 6-10 to seven foot, I'd throw it inside to them and then I would play like that."

While no one is comparing Asik to Tim Duncan, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says he sees similarities in what McHale is doing with what produced championship results for the Spurs.

"There's been plenty of teams that have gone deep into the playoffs, and even some of those San Antonio teams that won, they were inside-out, but they shot a lot of threes," Spoelstra said.

"It really depends on how your team is built. The margin for error when you get in the playoffs is so small that history could be different if other teams were able to win. I don't buy it that a certain style can't win in the playoffs. It mainly has to do with your personnel. You try to build a system that makes the most sense, to produce the most results of what you have."

And that brings up the second part of the Rockets' equation, the Harden part, the balance to the 3-pointers with his league-leading ability to get to the foul line.

His 36 points in that six-point loss to the Heat were the most by a Heat opponent this season. It was a stark contrast to his struggles against the Heat in last season's NBA Finals, when he had to defer to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook.

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The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday - following a day-long lockdown and manhunt - sports returned to Boston over the weekend.

"He has made superstar status," Miami's LeBron James said. "He is worthy of the max contract he received. He can do a little bit of everything."

"You give any talented player freedom in this league," Heat forward Shane Battier said, "and that player is much more dangerous. He's the franchise guy and he plays with a tremendous amount of confidence. He'll take any shot at any time and, as a defender, those are the most dangerous guys."

Yet for Harden, it also is an adjustment.

"I'm in a totally different role," he said. "I have to find a way to master this role I'm in now.

"There's a difference in my confidence. I'm the main option now. My confidence has to be up, so I can show my teammates that we can go out and win these types of games."

That, McHale said, is the goal, with the hope in Houston that this version of Tracy McGrady also comes with playoff success attached.

"I think, like everything, the more time you spend together, the more you see what he can and can't do," McHale said. "We have a pretty good idea of what he can and can't do. It's a matter of him getting comfortable with his teammates, getting comfortable with the style, which is a different style than they were used to playing in Oklahoma City, a little bit more movement, a little bit more pace, a lot of different stuff. But he's been phenomenal."

And so, quietly, as the Lakers and Mavericks make noise with what they haven't accomplished, the Rockets again are rising, perhaps this time to make a playoff statement, a statement that they're worthy, even in the West.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.



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