HOUSTON The job is only halfway complete, and while Rockets coach Kevin McHale intently stressed the importance of focusing on the Raptors first and then the Jazz after that, even he could admit that the Rockets are better in the categories in which he hoped they'd improve.
His training camp buzzwords of defense and cohesion would have rung hollow had the Rockets not made strides in those targeted areas. And while they are far from a finished product, the Rockets (20-14) have shown signs of undergoing the culture change McHale harped on just last week.
"The best players in our league do their thing over and over, and they do it consistently," McHale said. "The best teams do it consistently. Everybody in our league is capable of going off and having 20 points. The great players do it every, single night. The great teams go out and give a great effort every night. You can count on what they're going to do.
"That's what we've tried to evolve into, where we can count on our defense, we can count on our effort, we can count on our ability to play together, and then doing it consistently."
On the surface it's easy to find reasons why the Rockets have improved across the board defensively, posting superior statistics in opponents' points per game (95.9), defensive rating (103.3 points per 100 possessions) and opponents' effective field goal percentage (48.45) this season compared to last season (103.7, 109.0 and 50.01, respectively).
The preseason addition of free-agent center Samuel Dalembert delivered a rim protector the Rockets lacked as Yao Ming succumbed to his litany of foot problems over the last years of his career. The draft-night selection of small forward Chandler Parsons bolstered the Rockets' perimeter defense, an area of weakness in recent seasons.
But the Rockets also have benefitted from a healthy roster featuring players largely familiar with one another. Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson have been stalwarts off the bench, providing stability within a second unit that McHale prefers to keep limited to three or four players. Dalembert and Parsons are the lone newcomers to the rotation, thus even with a new staff the Rockets adroitly opened the season running.
"I was hoping for being in the position that we are in, but it's a great surprise and a great thing for what we've accomplished by beating these tough teams and playing pretty well on the road," Patterson said. "And also just coming together so quickly and establishing the type of identity we have on and off the court and being OK with that.
"We're all team players and we want to get the win, and that's what's most important. We've sacrificed so much, and it's been working so far."
McHale has reinforced his constant harping on effort by his actions. He has played no favorites in crunch time and has willfully ridden successful lineups through heavy minutes in the fourth quarter. His coaching strategies have been occasionally unconventional but the methodology has been obvious: defend and rebound, and you'll play.
Thus, as the Rockets embark on the second half and a grizzly March schedule that includes seven road games during one 12-day stretch, their focus is clear. Keep doing what they've done to recover from a 3-7 start to sixth place in the Western Conference, one game behind the fourth-place Mavericks and a home court advantage in the first round.
"Still getting better defensively and keeping it together every, single game and not having one or two letdown games (is the goal)," Rockets guard Kyle Lowry said. "Just making sure we're there defensively every, single game.
"Right now you're still building a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of camaraderie. But it's good that we're at this point where we are."
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