The Houston Rockets elicit more questions than answers these days. Twenty-one straight wins? Take it in for a moment and try to digest it. I'll say it again with emphasis. The Houston Rockets have won 21 consecutive games? The number is hard to imagine for any team in any era, but for this particular group it is almost unfathomable. I mean, for the past nine games of the streak we are talking about Tracy McGrady and a bunch of solid role players. This isn't a team that, on paper, should be able to keep its head above water without Yao Ming, much less dominate the entire league for a six-week stretch.
There is always luck associated with winning. But this Rockets team creates winning opportunities by valuing every possession. Simply put, they are the best overall defensive team in the NBA. The numbers back that up, but they don't tell the entire story. Houston ranks fourth in points allowed, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in overall rebounding percentage. It is the stratosphere in which Boston, Detroit and San Antonio reside, three teams on the short list of title contenders. The Rockets are the best defensive team in the league because they contest every shot. They never give up on screens. They trap and rotate better than everyone else. They help on penetration. In short, they are relentlessly competitive. They have held opponents to fewer than 100 points 18 times during the streak.
Still not convinced the Rockets are legit? Wondering about that schedule? I will concede that they haven't faced a proportionately high number of elite teams during the streak. But they have beaten Cleveland (twice), New Orleans (twice), Dallas on the road and the Denver Nuggets. During the streak they have only played six games against teams that have no shot at the postseason. The Rockets have also crushed the bottom-feeders with a double-digit point differential. There have been no letdowns. The schedule will be significantly more difficult starting Sunday with a home date with the Lakers (ABC, 3:30 ET). That will be followed by a matchup with Boston and a three game trip to New Orleans, Golden State and Phoenix. We certainly will know a lot more about the Rockets a week and a half from now.
Next question. How are they scoring enough points with this lineup? First of all, they have an offensive weapon in McGrady who is as talented as any other player in the NBA. The Rockets use him as the primary playmaker, which allows him to score, create, or occupy defenders in order to give their role players the opportunity to make an impact. To McGrady's credit, he hasn't forced the issue or felt the need to put up huge numbers in Yao's absence. He trusts his teammates and they are coming through in a big way.
With that said, can the Houston Rockets actually do some damage in the playoffs? The answer is yes, if they get paired up with Dallas, New Orleans, Golden State or Phoenix.
As far as the Spurs, Lakers and Jazz go, each of these teams has the necessary combination of talent, scoring balance, discipline, defensive impact and coaching prowess to take care of business against the Rockets. Those teams won't beat themselves and that is a big part of what the Rockets have relied upon during the streak.
The Rockets are a serious threat in the West. They are an underdog, without a doubt. But they win because they understand what it takes to succeed. The final chapter on this team won't be written until the postseason run is completed. For now, just sit back and enjoy the show.
ESPN analyst Tim Legler is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime.
To unlock the key to New Orleans' success this season, just think about where this team is from, and then consider the alternative. You see, the team from the "Big Easy" avoids giving up the two easiest shots in basketball, layups and free throws. It's fundamental basketball at its best -- perhaps the two areas that coaches from grade school through the pro's often stress the most.
To be sure, the Hornets excel in many areas of the game, on both sides of the floor. They are a top 10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency, because they employ excellent talent in systems that take advantage of their skills. Chris Paul, their dynamic point guard and leader, has become a coach on the floor. You can see him, frequently, talking to his team about missed assignments on defense or adjustments they need to make on offense. This gives the Hornets an edge in games; anything that coach Byron Scott may miss on the sidelines could get addressed by Paul.
Paul gives this team its identity, and because he dominates the ball and the action offensively so much, it leads to the first key mentioned -- the Hornets are fourth in the league in turnover rate, which is why they give up so few layups. The best way to limit layup attempts by opponents is to always have defensive balance in transition, and the best way to accomplish this balance is to get off a good shot on offense. The structure of the Hornets on offense -- they play very slowly compared to the league (27th in pace to be exact) -- and their overall discipline means that almost all of their shots come within the flow of their half-court game -- so they rarely are caught in poor positions to get back on defense. Good shots plus low turnovers equals efficient offense and fewer fast breaks allowed. This in turns means very few layups/dunks attempted.
The discipline they play with extends to their defense as well. Although this is the NBA, home to many of the best shot-makers in the world, there are still plenty of teams and individuals who take shots that they rarely make, hoping to draw a foul on the action. And the Hornets lead the league in free throws/field goals allowed rate. This means that they allow fewer free throws per field goal attempt than anyone in the league. Phoenix is famous for not fouling -- hoping to create a seamless and lightning-fast pace, betting the Suns will make more shots in that style than their opponent because of the talent of Steve Nash. But the Hornets, as a slow-playing team, are able to use the same approach because of Paul's gifts -- assuming that they will make more shots than their opponents thanks to his shot-making and passing skills. By not fouling often, the Hornets force their opponents to finish shots, and because their turnover rate is so low and their shot selection is so good, the shots they give up are often contested jumpers or post-up moves in the half court over (not around) their bigs.
The fact that they are in a virtual tie for second in fewest offensive rebounds allowed (per 100 possessions) only nails home the point. New Orleans, simply put, does not give the other team anything easy to finish, and that makes the Hornets a difficult team to beat.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Ryan (San Diego): The current run for the Celtics started with KG returning to form and included the defeat of Detroit where they looked like a MUCH better team. My point being the East is a one horse race and you should call it now so you look like a genius.
J.A. Adande: Point taken, especially since the Pistons look willing to concede the top spot to the Celts. But if this "wait till the playoffs" attitude persists with the Pistons they might find themselves unable to flip the switch back on .
Rod (Chicago): If the Pistons don't get out of the East, do you think Dumars will look to rebuild on the fly by trading Rasheed Wallace and maybe Richard Hamilton. Rasheed to Golden State for Al Harrington and Brandon Wright and Hamilton to New Orleans for Julian Wright and Mike James would get the rebuilding going quickly with the Wrights up front with Maxiell and Johnson and Prince and Billups in backcourt with Stuckey and Afflalo.
J.A. Adande: I don't know about those trades in particular, but if they don't get to the Finals this year, I think Joe D should mix it up. He could say, it's been fun, but you guys haven't won it all since '04, haven't been back to the Finals since '05 and you missed out on a great window the past two seasons. That's another story line that makes this season so interesting. The Pistons were one game away from back-to-back championships. Now this group could just be an afterthought if they don't get back to the Finals.
On Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers visit the streaking Houston Rockets (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Both teams are tied atop the Western Conference with the winner taking sole possession of the No. 1 spot.
The Rockets have won three of their past four games against the Lakers, including the first game of this season.
However, L.A. should take some confidence in the fact that it has had greater success against the Rockets in Houston.
The Lakers have won three of their past four games against the Rockets in Houston. Including the last time these two teams met, way back in November.
L.A. Lakers (Since 2004-05 vs. Rockets)
-- Peter Newmann, ESPN Research
Looking for a favorite to win the West? Which team has sleeper written all over it? Can the Spurs finally repeat?
J.A. Adande and Marc Stein answer these questions when they break down the playoff chances in the Western Conference.
MJ-esque? Tayshaun Prince does his best impression of the famous jumpman logo.
On Sunday, when the New Orleans Hornets visit the Detroit Pistons (ABC, 1 p.m. ET), the game will feature two of the best point guards in the NBA.
It should come as no surprise that these two teams rank toward the top of the league in fewest turnovers (Pistons rank No. 1, Hornets rank No. 3).
The Pistons have had some recent success against the Hornets, winning six of the past seven meetings between the two teams.
A key reason could be the fact that in the four times Chris Paul has faced Chauncey Billups, the cagey veteran Billups has had the upper hand.
CP3 vs. Chauncey Billups (Head-to-Head)
-- Peter Newmann, ESPN Research