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Should the Houston Rockets be viewed as legitimate title contenders?

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 16 : The Houston Rockets huddle up during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 16, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 16 : The Houston Rockets huddle up during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 16, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Houston Rockets had legitimate title aspirations due in large part to the demise of the Golden State Warriors. But based on what we’ve seen this season from the Rockets, should they be viewed as a legitimate title contender?

Over the last several years, the Houston Rockets have entered each season knowing they would need to get past the Golden State Warriors in order to make it to the NBA Finals. Although the Rockets came close to advancing on numerous occasions, they were ultimately unable to make it out of the Western Conference.

But as we all know, the Golden State Warriors aren’t the Dubs of old, despite having Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and D’Angelo Russell. Through 30 games of the 2019-20 season, Golden State has won only 6 games, which has been quite surprising. The collapse of the Warriors has seemingly opened the door for the Rockets, as they’ve had their season ended by the Dubs in four of the last five seasons.

Through 29 games the Rockets have gone 20-9, which has given them the fourth spot in the Western Conference standings. This is very encouraging as it hasn’t taken long for Russell Westbrook to get adjusted to playing in Mike D’Antoni‘s offense.

Through the first 19 games, Westbrook struggled to adapt to playing in Houston, as he averaged 21.7 points per game on 40.9 percent from the field and a measly 23.3 percent from 3-point range. Westbrook has picked it up over the last seven games however, as he has averaged 29.2 points per game on 52.2 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from downtown. Over the last three games, he has fared even better.

Over the last 3 games, Russ has averaged 33.6 points on 46.1% from the field and 32.5% from downtown.

But he's been driving to the basket more and getting more trips to the free throw line, which has been the key. He's had 31 free throw attempts and has made 87% of them.

— Space City Scoop (@SpaceCity_Scoop) December 22, 2019

With Russ turning it on of late, the Rockets have arguably the best one-two punch in the NBA between him and Harden. But does this make the Rockets contenders?

It’s difficult to answer this question because they did have a seven game win streak earlier in the year and they are currently riding a three-game win streak as well. But the teams they’ve played during those streaks have a combined record of 124-172, which puts a damper on those victories.

One of the best examples of how the Rockets have displayed the traits of a contender is the fact that they had consecutive games in which they came back from double-digit deficits and still won. The Rockets were down 25 points against the Spurs and fought back to win the game, which was their largest comeback in the franchise’s 53 year history. The Rockets followed that up with a victory over the Clippers, in which they came back from a 17 point deficit on the road and pulled out the victory. Although these have been impressive, the concern is the fact that they fell to such deficits in the first place, as that’s not quite what you would expect from a contender.

One of the biggest concerns about the Houston Rockets is the fact that they’ve consistently blown leads, which would be a major concern come playoff time. The Houston Rockets have had 14 games in which they’ve had double-digit leads and have allowed their opponent to either cut the lead to two points or take the lead altogether. During those games, the Rockets have gone 9-5, which is encouraging that they’ve responded well to adversity, but if the Rockets want to be viewed as true contenders, they will have to be able to close out games.

Next. Would Butler really have improved the Rockets?

At the end of the day, it’s too early to make the assessment of whether the Rockets are true contenders or not, as we’ve not yet entered the halfway mark on the year. Not only that, the Rockets haven’t had a fully healthy line-up as they’ve been without Danuel House, Clint Capela, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon, which also plays a large part in the Rockets’ success. But there have been signs that this Houston Rockets team should be viewed as a legitimate threat to the rest of the league.

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