HOUSTON — It was early in the season when James Harden(James Harden Jersey)’s patience was tested most.
The Houston Rockets had lost their first three games by an average of 20 points, and nothing was working.
Yet here was Harden, the Rockets’ best player, telling anyone who would listen to wait because things would improve. It had undergone several changes. Dwight Howard, Harden’s superstar counterpart, reiterated that message.
Harden said the struggles reminded him of what the Cleveland Cavaliers went through in their first season with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James together. Indeed, the Cavs started 5-7 last season and sat 19-20 in mid-January 2015, having lost six consecutive games, five of which came with James inactive.
But the Cavs improved, beginning with a 12-game winning streak, and they eventually pushed themselves to the NBA Finals before losing to Golden State.
That’s what gave Harden hope through an 0-3 start and the firing of coach Kevin McHale. True to his words, the Rockets have gotten better, their heads above .500 (21-19) and riding a season-high five-game winning streak as they host the Cavs on Friday night (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Rockets are not an elite team, something general manager Daryl Morey and team owner Leslie Alexander expected, but they are much improved. Still, there’s work that needs to be done.
“I’m worried given our goals,” Morey said. “We still have a lot of improvement to do and we’re working towards that.”
Added Harden: “We’re playing a lot better than a month ago. So that feeling is different. Now we got to figure out how to be on the same page at all times. These last few games have offered some tests, we’ve been through some adversity and we figured it out together against some good teams. Hopefully we can keep that streak going on.”
Let’s look at five things the Rockets have done to right the ship:
During the Rockets’ five-game winning streak, opponents scored fewer than 100 points three times and averaged 96.6 PPG. With J.B. Bickerstaff as the coach, the defensive efficiency has improved from 106.5 in 11 games under McHale to 104.5.
“We’re more aggressive, playing harder and we’re rebounding better,” forward Corey Brewer said. “Once we rebound and we’re aggressive, we’re going to be fine.”
True, there still are defensive lapses, particularly with Harden along the perimeter and in the frontcourt, where the Rockets struggle with backdoor cuts. In losses to less talented teams such as Brooklyn and Denver, the Rockets were outrebounded. They have the third-worst field goal percentage defense at 46.5 percent.
Yet the team does have Howard, third in the league in rebounding at 11.9, and Clint Capela at power forward, with his 2.2 defensive box plus/minus.