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Surging Rockets inch closer to West Play-In Tournament spot

Surging Rockets inch closer to West Play-In Tournament spot

Don’t look now, but the Houston Rockets are back in the Western Conference playoff picture. 

With the Golden State Warriors’ loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves and their win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Rockets now sit just a half-game behind the 10th and last play-in spot in the Western Conference.

After looking to be nowhere near the play-in tournament range with just a 25-34 record, the Rockets have found a semblance of life again by winning 11 of their last 12 games, including rattling off a nine-game winning streak (and counting) to go above .500 on the season.

What makes the Rockets’ run even more impressive is they have done it even without young star center Alperen Sengun, who went down with a lower leg injury. Sengun has been leading the team in points (21.1), rebounds (9.3) and assists (5.0) for a young Rockets team that's hungry for some postseason action under first-year head coach Ime Udoka after rebuilding for the past four years. 

In Sengun’s absence, the Rockets have been rejuvenated with a different style of play. They are playing up and down the court, running and gunning and spacing the floor as coach Udoka is making the most out of the roster in without their playmaking hub.

Much of this can be credited to Jalen Green’s increased level of play. Before the streak, Green was struggling with his shot all year long, only averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists on just 40/31/80 shooting splits. Over his past 12 games, Green has amped up his level of play, significantly increasing his numbers by tallying 27.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, while shooting 49.6% from the field and 40.4% from three. And this has translated to wins for Houston. 

In those 12 games, Green has been relentlessly attacking the rim and playing with pace. Green has also been shooting more threes, and he has been making them at a respectable mark to force defenders to respect his shot. This has allowed him to create opportunities in the paint as well as facilitating for his teammates.

Due to his efforts, Green was awarded a Western Conference Player of the Week award and he certainly hopes to keep this up for the Rockets as they continue to trend upward and eventually catch the Warriors.

Another thing that has been huge in Houston’s hot stretch is unlocking Amen Thompson. The rookie out of Overtime Elite has struggled to start the season with a slew of injuries and a lack of playing time enough to contribute. This has hampered him and his ability to contribute.

However, when Sengun was injured, Thompson was inserted into the starting lineup and has shone since the streak has started. The 6’7 guard/forward leads the Rockets in fastbreak opportunities, and uses his athletic abilities to get out on transition. He has also proven to be a good cutter when he is off the ball to get easy buckets underneath the basket. His athleticism also gives him an advantage in finishing off plays, particularly on dunks and layups. 

On defense, Thompson is disruptive as a point-of-attack defender, using his length and size to bother opposing smaller point guards. Thompson uses his long limbs to swipe at the ball, creating deflections and steals that lead to easy transition baskets. At 6’7, Thompson is also an excellent rebounder at his position and gives the Rockets plenty of chances to run and leak out.

Finally, the Rockets have scored more and seemingly increased their level of play. This might be directly in correlation with Sengun being out, with other guys like Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, Jabari Smith and even their bench guys doing more scoring to compensate for Sengun’s production. This collected effort has been the key to their resurgence this season, and the Rockets hope to sustain it for the final stretch of the season in which eight of their remaining 11 games are against playoff teams.

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