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NBA Saturday: Rockets Silencing Doubters

The Rockets are one of the hottest teams in the NBA and proving that they’re legitimate contenders … Why the Magic bought out Glen Davis

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In recent weeks, the Houston Rockets have been one of the hottest teams in the league. Since Jan. 1, Houston has won 16 of 21 games to put their record at 37-18. The Rockets have solidified themselves as legitimate contenders, and they currently sit in third place in the competitive Western Conference.

Houston has been playing their best basketball in recent weeks, led by their All-Stars. Both James Harden and Dwight Howard have been filling the stat sheet in February, putting up their best numbers of the season by far.

Harden has averaged 27.9 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three-point range. Howard has averaged 22.9 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks while shooting 60.8 percent from the field. The team has also received strong contributions from role players Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley. It took the Rockets some time to jell, but they’re finally playing to their full potential.

“We’re getting a lot better,” Howard said. “At the start of the season, we were all trying to understand each other and figure out how to play together, but we’re a lot better at it now. We’re going to keep getting better too. We’re playing great basketball right now and I’m very happy with our progress, but we’re not satisfied. We’re happy that we’ve come a long way, but we’re going to continue to work and get better.”

“We’re building something special in Houston,” Harden said. “It’s going to take some time, but people are starting to recognize now.”

Howard’s improvement has really allowed the Rockets to climb the standings. When Howard is playing as well as he has recently, Houston is almost unstoppable because he can dominate opposing centers, which then creates opportunities for the team’s perimeter scorers. Their inside-outside attack is capable of driving defenses crazy and it’s very difficult to game plan around.

“He is making it hard for them to contain him one-on-one down low and it’s opening up a lot of open shots on the perimeter,” Parsons said of Howard. “There is no way those guys can guard him one-on-one. They’re going to have to start bringing two and that’s when our offense will be unguardable.”

“I’ve just been patient and letting my teammates find me in the right spot,” Howard said. “I’m not rushing my shots. We just have to get some points in transition, work the pick-and-roll, and also post up. Once we get all three things figured out on the offensive end, and on the defensive end get stops, then we will become a better team.”

“He’s playing very well,” Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown said of Howard after a recent loss to Houston. “He’s obviously an All-Star and he might be one of the all-time greatest to play the game. When you have a guy like that, that you can just throw the ball into the post and command a double-team or know you’re going to get a decent look, that is a big time luxury.”

As the Rockets have developed chemistry, their ball movement has improved as well.

“It just opens everything up; the ball is zipping around and it is fun to watch when we see ourselves getting stops and moving the ball,” Lin said. “Dwight might score on a post-up. James might get a pick-and-roll or transition, Chandler hits a three. [The ball] is moving around and when you are attacking on all cylinders, it is really tough to stop.”

“Our ball movement has been a lot better,” Parsons said. “We’ve been throwing the ball ahead and we’ve been playing more unselfish. It’s so much easier for us when we do that and it just opens up so much more space to operate, little things that coach always talks about, throwing the ball ahead instead of dribbling it. When you dribble it, it gives the defense time to set up and they can lock in defensively.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Rockets’ season has been Jones, who has emerged as the team’s starting power forward. Jones barely played for the Rockets last season, appearing in just 19 games and spending most of his time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League. But in his second NBA season, the 22-year-old has averaged 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 52.2 percent from the field in 45 games as a starter.

“I think Terrence has had a really good year,” head coach Kevin McHale said. “He’s really come on, he’s playing really well. He just turned 22, he’s got a really bright future. He’s just got to keep playing and improving, which he will. … I think Terrence is getting a little more comfortable with starting and getting more consistent with his play and effort all the time. I said this all year, he had been coming on and playing really well. I think ever since he’s moved into the starting lineup, he’s been blossoming and growing. He’s still got a long way to go because he’s a young kid, but he’s been playing very well for us.”

Throughout the season, the Rockets have had some tough stretches as the team tried to get everyone on the same page. It took awhile for the other players to adjust to playing with Howard and vice versa, but they have worked through those issues on offensive end. With that said, the team could stand to improve defensively. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, and Beverley have led the team on defense, but they can’t be the only ones committing on that end of the court.

“We have a lot of young guys who haven’t been in the league for many years, so they’re still trying to learn how to play the game of basketball,” Howard said. “For me, I’m trying to do whatever I can do to lead this team. On the defensive end, I’m teaching guys how to play team defense.”

Howard’s presence has been good for the young Rockets. The 28-year-old, as one of the oldest players in the locker room, has been a key leader for the Rockets. He has helped the team on and off the hardwood. On the court, Howard has experienced just about everything in his 10 NBA seasons. Off the court, Howard has tried his best to guide his young teammates. For instance, Harden has been dealing with criticism more than ever this season and Howard has tried to help him block it out.

“When you’re great, people are always going to try to find flaws in your game and they’re going to criticize you, but you can’t pay attention to any of that stuff,” Howard said. “Whatever we hear, we take it and use it as motivation. We have our own goal, which is to win a championship, so we can’t spend our time focusing on all of the negative things that are being said about us. If [we] weren’t good, they wouldn’t be talking about us. We’ve just taken on that mentality.”

“I’ve learned from him,” Harden said. “He doesn’t really talk about it, but I’ve seen the way he approaches it and he doesn’t really care about what people say. People are going to talk regardless, and that’s a good thing when they’re talking. I just go out there and do what I have to do. There’s always going to be some flaws in everybody, no matter what it is. I just don’t pay it any attention and I try to go out there and have fun. I hear it, take it for what it is, and use it as motivation.”

On Thursday, the Rockets sent Aaron Brooks to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jordan Hamilton prior to the trade deadline. It was the seventh straight deadline that Rockets GM Daryl Morey had pulled the trigger on a deal, but this was a relatively minor move.

At this point, the major moves have been completed by Morey. The core pieces have been assembled. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing how far this team can advance in the postseason.

Rob Hennigan Explains Glen Davis Buyout

On Friday, the Orlando Magic and Glen Davis officially agreed to a buyout. Once Davis clears waivers on Monday, he will become an unrestricted free agent. The 28-year-old was averaging 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds this season with the Magic prior to the buyout.

Once the move was finalized, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan spoke with reporters and explained the decision.

“After the deadline passed, we just felt like this change was necessary and a good thing for our team and also for Glen,” Hennigan said, according to OrlandoMagic.com. “It mutually benefitted both sides. … It opens up opportunities for players on our team to get some minutes. Those minutes, with (head coach) Jacque (Vaughn), they will be based on merit and have to be earned. With Glen leaving, it certainly opens up some minutes for our younger guys.”

Davis posted a statement on Twitter: “I want to first thank the Orlando Magic for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this Organization over the last 3 years,” Davis wrote. “Secondly, I want to thank the Magic fans and the Orlando community for welcoming me and my family into your family and for your support. Although I will no longer be a Magic player, I will continue to make Orlando my home. It’s great place to live and to raise my family. Thanks again for all of your support. I am eternally grateful. All my best!!!!”

While Davis was bought out, Hennigan made it clear that there’s still a place on the roster for other veterans such as Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Jason Maxiell.

“We value all of the veterans that we have on our team and they have an important role on our team,” Hennigan said. “Yes, we have a very young team, but you have to be careful about becoming too young and having too much youth. Finding that balance between young, old and everything in the middle is important.”

The Clippers, Nets, HEAT, Spurs and Warriors are among the teams reportedly pursuing Davis.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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