The next three nights are going to be a good test for Jeremy Lin, far left, and James Harden, second from left, as they take on Tim Duncan, second from right, and the San Antonio Spurs and O.J. Mayo, far right, and the Dallas Mavericks in a three-game swing starting Friday. (Photo : Reuters)
It's been hard to get a read on these Houston Rockets, even after more than a month of NBA regular season play.
On the one hand, they've looked at times like they can't get it together, a team whose main stars, Jeremy Lin and James Harden, have had shooting slumps - even in spite of Harden's 23.6 points per game, fifth best in the league - and who turn over the ball way too many times, a whopping 16.3 turnovers each game, fourth-worst in the NBA.
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And on the flip side, at times, they seem like the sky is the limit for their potential, never exemplified better than by stunning wins against Carmelo Anthony and the Eastern Conference-leading New York Knicks and a grind-it-out win on Tuesday against the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers.
A team whose role players, Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons, are stepping up to make big time contributions alongside Harden and Lin. Whose bench players, Toney Douglas and Greg Smith, are providing quality minutes off the bench. Whose offense is generating the third-highest number of points, 103.7, in the league.
Standing at a 9-8 record after 17 games, it's still hard to tell who this team is, if they're more Jekyll or Hyde.
One thing is for sure, though--the next three-game Texas home stand against the dominant San Antonio Spurs (15-4) and the still-potent Dallas Mavericks (8-10) will serve as a good litmus test for Rockets fans to find out.
Although, you'll never get acting Rockets coach Kelvin Sampson to admit that.
"I was asked the same thing about playing Chicago and New York," Sampson told the Houston Chronicle this week regarding the importance of this next three-game stretch. "As young as we are, wins are wins. Wins mean more to us than they mean to San Antonio. San Antonio expects to win, and they should. They'll be in the conference finals or NBA Finals, and if they're not, it's an upset.
Houston will face their biggest test to date Friday when they travel to San Antonio to face Tim Duncan's Spurs, a team that fell only two games short of the NBA Finals last season.
And unlike last week against Miami, it's unlikely that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is going to do the Rockets any solids by sitting Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
From there, they go back home on Saturday to face the battle-tested Dallas Mavericks and their ever-dangerous shooting guard O.J. Mayo, setting up a great match-up between himself and Harden. From there, they host the Spurs again on Monday. On the line Saturday and Monday is Houston's six-game home winning streak, which Sampson admits has done much for his team's confidence levels.
"We're the youngest team in the league. Wins like (Tuesday over the Los Angeles Lakers) or beating Chicago, beating New York, beating Toronto - whoever we beat is a big deal for us. This stretch is no different than the stretch we came out of."
And yet at the same time, it is different. This isn't some little East Coast swing or a stroll down the West Coast-this is about Texas pride. The Lone Star State has the unique distinction of being the only state who active NBA teams have all won an NBA Championship-multiple, in the case of the Rockets and Spurs-in the last 20 years.
The Rockets, with the youngest team in the NBA at an average of 23.9 years old, according to the Chronicle, are the new kids on the block. Young, rebuilt and rejuvenated, this is a team with loads of talent and with time on their side.
The Mavericks still have a lot of spring in their step, and that's without Dirk Nowitzki - who should be back at some point this winter off the injured reserve list.
And with four championships under their belt in the Tim Duncan era, this is still very much the Spurs' town...er, state.
A good showing for Houston during this Texas showdown-particularly their games at home - would go a long way towards showing the West, and the rest of the league, that this Rockets team is for real.
"All of those are huge for our team," Sampson says of the Rockets' recent home-winning streak. "You can tell it gives us confidence.
"I don't think winning six at home is a big deal for the Spurs. It may not even be a big deal for the Lakers and certainly not for Miami. But for us in our infancy as we are building and growing, it's a big deal."