However, with this week's rare, three-day layoff, and considering the grueling stretch that awaits the Rockets, I'm going to close the book on the unofficial first quarter of the regular season.
If I had to describe the Rockets' season in one word, I'd say it's been frustrating. It was frustrating to watch James Harden miss such a large percentage of his 3s short (which I assume was mainly due to a lingering foot problem). It was frustrating to watch a handful of small injuries hinder the team's progress. It was frustrating to wait nine games before Kevin McHale inserted Terrence Jones into the starting lineup. It was frustrating to watch Steve Blake drain a game-winning 3 on a miscommunication. It was (and forever will be) frustrating to watch opposing coaches use the Hack-a-Howard technique.
The list can go on and on, but with all the frustration, the Rockets are still 15-7, which is the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. Aside from a few injuries to Lin, Omer Asik and Greg Smith, the team looks like it is getting healthy, which is a great sign for a young squad that's aiming for consistency but frequently coming up short.
Instead of giving out boring awards like MVP, Sixth Man or anything like that, I've thought up a few personal and team awards for the unofficial first quarter of the regular season:
Best Individual Performance: James Harden vs. San Antonio Spurs (November 30)
Harden has scored more than 30 points seven times this season, but his 16-point fourth quarter in a win over the Spurs was this season's shining moment (so far). With the Rockets trailing by three late in the game, Harden hit a leaning 3 to tie the game up. Down the stretch, he did everything Houston needed him to do, which helped the Rockets come up with their first marquee victory of the season. Harden finished the game with 31 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 10-19 shooting.
Most Surprising Improvement: Jeremy Lin's 3-Point Shooting
One of the biggest knocks on Lin this offseason was his inconsistent 3-point shot. The 3-point shot has always been part of Lin's arsenal, as he's accustomed to using the high screen to set up his circle-area 3s.
However, this season Lin has proven that he can drain the long ball in catch-and-shoot situations as well, which will help him find late-game minutes next to Harden in the backcourt. Lin has raised his 3-point shooting percentage from 34% last season to 39% this season, and he also set a new franchise record with nine 3s in a November 15 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. To put that in perspective, Lin made just 10 3-point shots in the entire month of November last season.
Most Dominating Win: Golden State Warriors (December 6)
In a potential playoff matchup, the Rockets ran through the Warriors, outscoring them 31-12 in the first quarter. Harden scored 34 with relative ease, while Howard dropped 22 and 18 on just 5-8 shooting. Although Houston's lopsided victories over the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, and Atlanta Hawks were all very convincing, a dominating win over a Western Conference contender is certainly more impressive (although I originally had the Celtics as the most dominating victory, because I was blown away by how anemic the Rockets made the C's offense look).
Most Heartbreaking Loss: Los Angeles Lakers (November 7)
With just a few measly seconds left on the clock, Steve Blake nailed a game-winning 3 off a well-executed, poorly defended out-of-bounds play. Blake's shot pretty much ended the game, but that wasn't the only downside of the game.
Howard, who was playing his first game against the Lakers since he rejected them this offseason, shot just 5-16 from the free-throw line, which helped the Lakers get back into the game. Harden was unstoppable on offense, but downright pathetic on defense, as the Lakers' bench made Houston's defense look like they were standing in mud.
Feel-Good Game of the Year: November 25 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
I doubt the Rockets top this one all year. With Harden out, Houston went up against an equally banged up Grizz squad that was playing without their star, Marc Gasol. Houston had trouble with Memphis' stellar defense in the first half, trailing 44-32 heading into the third quarter.
In the third, Lin and Howard helped the Rockets make it a game, but, down the stretch, McHale went with Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Asik. This group, which is seldom seen on the court together, willed the Rockets to victory using a balanced offensive attack, and a seldom-seen defensive intensity.
Everyone knows what Harden, Lin and Howard can do, and it seems like the world is getting to know Parsons, but to see the rest of the team step up like that in crunch time was an uplifting scene. This game seemed to help unify the Rockets, who followed up the performance with dominating victories over the Hawks and Nets.
The early part of the NBA season is always a little bit strange, as players work themselves into shape and most teams struggle to find cohesion. However, for Rockets fans, the first quarter proved that this team is capable of greatness. I'm in the minority here, but I believe the Rockets have a legitimate chance to win the Western Conference this year, and nothing they've done in the first quarter of the year has proved otherwise.
Houston's schedule will heat up now, as the boys in red will be playing 12 games in the final 20 days of 2013. On Thursday night, the Rockets will play the surprising Portland Trail Blazers on the road, and will play the back end of a grueling road back-to-back Friday night in Golden State.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and a graduate of Montclair State University. One of his life goals is to figure out why left-handed shooters have such pretty strokes.
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