Last year the Rockets crashed out in the first round of the playoffs. Victim to a Damian Lillard three pointer caused by a bad defensive switch between Chandler Parsons and James Harden, the team headed into the offseason with their heads hung, and proceeded to loose Chandler Parsons and Omir Asik then fail to land Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony.

By the start of this season, their main pickup was Trevor Ariza – a strong wing that would need to step up to earn his keep. Pundits had them making the playoffs, but many felt that they weren’t in the “upper tier” of teams in the tough Western Conference. I said of them “I think they’re great, but if there’s an injury to either Harden or Howard I don’t think the other can carry them to a title.”

Well, Houston has promptly started 5-0, including a comprehensive win at Miami last night. They’ve yet to play the top tier of league opponents (that will happen soon), but we’re seeing the makings of a good, smart team – one that could in fact contend for the title this year.

One of the biggest knocks against the Rockets has been it’s coach, Kevin McHale. One of the greatest players of all-time, he hasn’t always impressed with his Xs and Os, and has benefited from having some good talent and a great basketball mind running basketball operations. This year, however, we’ve seen a new side of McHale.

houston_defenseIn the Boston game, for example, their defense was particularly aggressive and effective. Below we see several important principles at play. Beverly challenges Rondo as he crosses the half court line – forcing the play to start further out, not in the wing or close to the three point line where they might normally start a set play. Notice that all of the Rockets players are clearly man-marking close, even Howard (with his hand out) and Harden (a notoriously bad defender who here is advancing to deny the most logical pass to enter the offense.

This aggressiveness had the effect of forcing ball movement to a minimum, but also creating havoc in the minds of Boston players – leading to rushed shots (this particular possession resulted in a shot-clock violation).

Coming in, the Rockets knew that three point shots are one of Boston’s keys to victory. Against Brooklyn on opening night, they hit 8 threes in the first half on the way to blowing out the Nets. Subsequently, when the Celtics come to Boston, McHale’s staff knows they will rely on the three, but interestingly, Sullinger, and to a lesser extent Olynyk like to hoist threes and pull big men outside.

olynick_threeThe Rockets responded by giving space to these shooters – letting them live, and in this case die, by the three pointer. Seen here, Dwight gives room to Olynyk, while the rest of the floor is defended tightly (including a positionally set Harden up top and a charging Beverly coming through the screen).

This setup means that Olynyk can hoist the three, but that’s a choice the Rockets are more than willing to allow, setting the Rockets up to easily crash the boards with Sullinger tied up in the screen. Instead, he looks to pass off to Rondo on the wing, or Jeff Green popping up top – both of whom are covered tightly.

So we come to the game last night against Miami. Miami, while not a “top-tier” team this year, still has high hopes, and comes into the game 3-0, having defeated much better competition than the Rockets. After a close first half, the Heat wilted under the constant pressure. Statistically, Harden just missed a triple double, but the team was led by the combination of Howards dominance over Bosh, Ariza’s 5 3-poiners, and Beverly’s tough defense on Wade – leaving him with 19 points but only 3 assists.

Houston seemed to stop up the passing lanes, and on offense, always seemed to find Howard inside, or Ariza on the perimeter. When neither was an option, Harden took over, and the Heat were unable to handle all the options.

So – are they for real? How will they match up against the best-of-the-best this year?

As in the past, the most likely roadblock for the Rockets is teams that feature two large front-court players. In the west, Portland (who eliminated them last year), the Clippers, the Grizzlies, and the Spurs should present challenges – a common story for many teams – while teams such as Sacramento (where Boogie Cousins can be neutralized by Howard) or Phoenix (where Harden and Beverly can run with the guards and Howard can dominate) should be good match ups.

Luckily for the viewer, the Rockets finish the week home against the Spurs and Warriors – two teams that are considered “elite” – so we should know soon if they are in fact for real. Until then, Rockets fans can enjoy this straight-forward quote from Erik Spoelstra, “You do have to credit them. They don’t make it easy. They have a high-octane offense.”