The Houston Rockets (8-7) currently hold the NBA’s longest winning streak of 2011-12 at five games, and they show no signs of slowing down any time soon. After a difficult contest versus the San Antonio Spurs this coming Saturday, the Rockets play patsies Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Washington in three straight games next week. The opportunity for a strong playoff push is very much alive and breathing. Here are five key questions the Rockets must answer to determine success for the the duration:
1) Can Kyle Lowry hold up? If Lowry is injured, the Rockets can kiss any postseason dreams goodbye. The Villanova product formerly known for his punishing drives and shaky jumper has officially evolved into an All-Star caliber point guard with a legitimate three-point shot in 2011-12, averaging roughly 17 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists per contest. Those numbers are like Jason Kidd on steroids and will likely continue, as Kevin McHale is forced to play Lowry for up to 40 minutes a night for Houston to be competitive. This is both good and bad. Lowry is essential to everything the Rockets do and, despite the solid play of backup Goran Dragic, the team looks entirely different without him on the floor. For Houston to succeed this season Lowry needs to play the majority of games, and at the abnormally high energy level he competes at — Lowry’s game is based on hustle and physicality — Lowry is in even greater danger of a crippling injury. He already missed multiple games this season with a bruised foot. The Rockets need to hold him out of practice if that is what it takes to preserve this valuable player’s health.
2) Will Kevin Martin start playing with more consistency? My guess is no because his offensive game continues to base itself on three-point shooting, a notoriously unreliable tool for a player who purports to be his team’s best scoring weapon. Case in point: Martin scored 27 points in the first half of Thursday’s victory over the New Orleans Hornets, and five in the second, making only two shots. Although the slight two guard was likely to deviate more toward the middle after a stellar shooting run last season in Houston, the decline in his play is a bit startling. He is shooting only 31 percent from long distance, almost seven percentage points lower than his career average. The Rockets play better when Martin scores, but they are significantly worse when they rely on him for buckets he cannot produce. Even when missing, he can be a black hole. Martin needs to find a happy medium between scoring outbursts and unselfishness for Houston to be successful.
3) Will G.M. Daryl Morey attempt to engineer another big trade? Morey is notorious for shuffling his “commodities” around the NBA like chess pieces, and although the team is playing well right now, he knows as the fans know that they aren’t good enough to compete for a championship. Until they are, a blockbuster trade is always a possibility. This is the man who landed Kevin Martin midseason and attempted to form his own Big Three in 2008 with Ron Artest, Yao Ming, and Tracy McGrady. Small forward is a position of need, and fans already know Martin and Luis Scola are possible options to go after the preseason trade that wasn’t. The biggest question is whether the trade would gear toward a youthful rebuild movement or a desperate attempt to patch together a superstar veteran core.
4) Can Samuel Dalembert continue to play at a high level? The man dubbed “The Bear” by Rockets announcers is playing like a man possessed recently, and it’s a big reason for Houston’s success. Not only is the Haitian center swatting shots and protecting the paint on defense, the 6 ft. 11 Seton Hall veteran, who appears to have added some extra heft, is scoring and rebounding like a young steed. Sammy’s averages of nine and eight are right in line with his career averages, but he has scored and rebounded in the double digits each game this past week. Versus New Orleans, Dalembert scored 15 and grabbed 17 while playing nearly the entire game due to backup Jordan Hill’s flu bug. Oh, and he also contributed the game-winning follow-up dunk. If he can continue to play this well, the Rockets can use him as trade bait for bigger fish or keep him to make a push for the playoffs now.
5) Has McHale decided on a permanent rotation? The new coach flipped the rotation a bit in the past couple weeks, adding rookie Chandler Parsons to the starting lineup instead of incumbent Chase Budinger and banishing Terrence Williams back to his familiar post on the pine. The Parsons addition has been a smashing success — the energetic frat boy lookalike and follow-up dunking machine has improved Houston’s defense drastically — but I think Williams deserves another shot at playing time. I sincerely doubt Budinger is outplaying the athletic Louisville forward, as “Air Bud” has been mired in shooting woes and the Rockets bench continues to be adept at giving up big leads. Thursday night in New Orleans, Courtney Lee was the only Rockets reserve to even score a point. Adding Williams’ fresh energy and ability to score in a variety of ways back into the rotation would undoubtedly aid the paltry bench effort.