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‘Playing his ass off’: As Rockets guards improve, Fred VanVleet lauds Jalen Green’s growth

Heading into the NBA’s 2023-24 All-Star break, Rockets head coach Ime Udoka left his team and its fans with something to consider. He had just watched his team struggle versus a depleted Grizzlies team (missing four starters) to secure what was Houston’s fifth loss in six games, including a four-game losing streak.

“Maybe I have to look at the rotation and the lineup I have out there starting and try to get five competitors out there at one time to avoid poor starts,” Udoka said after that loss in Memphis.

After reflecting on his statement, Udoka decided to keep his starting rotation together and not make any changes. Still, the message was loud and resonated throughout the Rockets’ locker room.

Although he never mentioned names, his starting backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Jalen Green sifted through the rhetoric, and they knew that some of Udoka’s comments were directed at them. They both knew they needed to reassure their head coach that they could get the job done, if given the opportunity to continue playing together.

Since the All-Star break, that duo has become one of the NBA’s hottest backcourts, and that has helped the Rockets get back into contention for a potential Western Conference play-in tournament berth. Entering Monday, the Rockets (32-35) are 7-1 in March, and their current five-game winning streak is tied with Udoka’s former team (the Boston Celtics) for the league’s longest active streak.

During their March resurgence, VanVleet has averaged 20.1 points and 10.0 assists per game. He has had four double-doubles over the past eight games and is keeping Houston in games by not giving away possessions, averaging just 2.0 turnovers during that stretch.

“With the spacing and just trying to give the ball to the playmakers and let guys make plays,” VanVleet said when asked about being in control of the game from the point guard position. “It is my job to get guys in the right spot and give them the ball.”

VanVleet’s backcourt mate, Jalen Green, has been in the right position over the last 10 games, with Houston posting a 7-3 record. The third-year prospect has become more effective and efficient on both ends of the floor, and that’s something he struggled with earlier in the season — often leading to reduced playing time.

During Houston’s current five-game winning streak, Green is averaging 25.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game, shooting 49.5% from the floor and 41.0% from 3-point range.

“That’s all him,” VanVleet said about Green. “He’s been rolling. I got to give him all the credit. He’s got that swag, that confidence, making shots at a high level. His threes are getting better. But he’s been playing good ball for a while, now, at both ends of the floor. He’s guarding. He’s taking pride in rebounding. The better he plays, the easier it is on everybody. He’s been playing his ass off.”

That improvement out of the backcourt is vital for a Houston team that is suddenly without rising star Alperen Sengun at center, and that appears likely to remain the case for the rest of this season. The Rockets are currently 3-0 since Sengun’s March 10 injury.

VanVleet, Green, and the rest of the Rockets will look to keep that momentum rolling when they visit Washington (11-57) on Tuesday, with tipoff at 6:00 p.m. Central. Houston enters the week 3.5 games back of the West’s final play-in tournament spot.

Story originally appeared on Rockets Wire