For the Rockets, play-in or not, this season is a win

With Houston’s stunning late-season winning streak — and, with it, a glimmer of hope of qualifying for the postseason — hanging in the balance, Jalen Green had the opportunity to put on the cape.

The Rockets had just given up six straight points to go down by two late against a Thunder team vying for the West's No. 1 seed. But after a missed jumper by Kenrich Williams, Houston had the ball and a chance, and nobody would've blamed Green for calling his own number. Not in the throes of a heater that had seen him average more than 28 points per game over his previous 13 outings; not on a night where he'd already scored 32 points and drilled six 3-pointers.

You make shots like Green has over the last month, you get the benefit of the doubt when it’s time to decide who takes the last one. So Green sprinted down the court and made his decision.

This is what growth looks like:

Green drives, and sees three orange slices converge on the calm blue waters of the key. Green also sees Jabari Smith Jr., who hadn’t made a 3 in more than a week, alone in the corner. Green doesn’t think; he reads, and reacts.

"I knew I had him once I got two feet in the paint," Green later told reporters. "I know their game plan is just to collapse in the paint, bring everybody over, and Jabari's known for that. I'm going to trust Jabari with that all day long."

Smith rewards the faith, cashes out, puts Houston up by two with 21.4 seconds to go. It wasn't the game-winner — Jalen Williams saw fit to give everyone five more minutes of fun — but the Rockets would go on to finish off a 132-126 thriller, extending their improbable run to 10 games.

They don’t get there without that last-minute read — without a natural-born scorer showing his advancing understanding that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

"It was huge," Rockets head coach Ime Udoka said. "We just showed the team that. Basically, it was our favorite play of the game. We just showed four guys in the paint, and he made the right pass. [...] Great pass, great growth. I'm proud of them for that play."

The thing about progress, though: It isn’t linear.

Fast-forward six days. The Rockets' winning streak is over, rudely ended by a grinning, long-range-finger-rolling Luka Dončić and the fascinating Mavericks. Their chances of catching the stabilizing Warriors for 10th place hang by a thread as they grind through a rock-fight against a Timberwolves team vying for the West's No. 1 seed. And after spending his night balancing aggression …

… with making the right reads against the NBA’s best defense …

… Green again had the ball and a chance.

A barrage of Fred VanVleet buckets sparked a 17-3 run to make Minnesota sweat. With a minute left and the Rockets down five, Green was on the handle, looking to make a play to keep those dwindling play-in hopes alive.

This, too, is what growth looks like:

Green telegraphs his next move as he initiates the set, serving up a pick-six on a silver platter for the ball-hawking Anthony Edwards. Feeling the pressure to atone as he speed-dribbles back up the court, Green compounds his sin, losing control and committing another turnover that sends Edwards into the open floor; VanVleet is forced to take a clear-path foul that gives Minnesota two free throws and the ball.

One pass, one stumble, nine seconds. Sometimes, that’s all the margin for error you’ve got.

"You can see that after that turnover," Green told reporters after the game. "One turnover and that's the ballgame."

It's a painful lesson to learn, and a costly one. The loss in Minneapolis, combined with the Warriors outlasting the Mavs, pushed the Rockets three games out of 10th with seven games left. The projection models at Basketball-Reference.com, Inpredictable and Playoff Status all give Houston less than a 3% chance of earning that final play-in berth.

That pain, though, shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment of the Rockets even putting themselves in position to feel it.

After a 110-105 loss in Phoenix, the Rockets exited February at 25-34, a season-worst nine games under .500, 6.5 games south of 10th place with 23 games to go. Nobody would've batted an eye if Houston started to let go of the rope — if not at that point, then certainly a week and a half later, when breakout star Alperen Şengün suffered a severe ankle sprain that could sideline him for the rest of the season.

After all, a Rockets team fielding the NBA's eighth-youngest roster had already topped its win total from each of the previous three seasons in Year 1 under Udoka. Proof of concept, right?

Except, as the coach sees it, that's not what growth looks like. As Udoka told Wes Goldberg of RealGM earlier this season, "I don't look at it as, 'We've won 17, 20, 22 over the last three years, and us winning 10 more is a good step.'"

So Udoka leaned into his personnel and his principles, insisting the Rockets come out of the All-Star break both flying and bombing away. After ranking 16th in average time to shot and 15th in 3-point attempts per game before the break, the Rockets had cranked those up to eighth and fourth, respectively, between All-Star and Şengün going down. With his primary post presence unavailable, Udoka doubled down: Instead of inserting backup center Jock Landale into Şengün's spot, he'd elevate rookie chaos agent Amen Thompson, shift Smith to center, and play a brand of small-ball that could translate into both more speed and more 3s. Since Şengün's injury, Houston's up to third in average time to shot and second in 3-point attempts per game.

The experiment has produced some impressive results — chiefly, a 13-2 run that was not only the NBA's best record in the month of March, according to Justin Kubatko of Statitudes, but the Rockets franchise's best month in six years, since going 14-1 in March 2018. (Yes, that run included wins over the basement-dwelling Spurs, Trail Blazers, Wizards and Jazz. But Houston also took down the postseason-bound Suns, Kings, Cavaliers and Thunder.)

While past iterations focused primarily on the offensive end, this year's Rockets were built to get stops, and that project has been a certified success. With seven games left in the season, Houston ranks fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, leads the league in shutting off transition buckets, and sits in the top 10 in a slew of categories. Houston hasn't been quite as stingy recently, but it's still eighth in points allowed per possession since Şengün's injury, with Udoka leveraging the increase in athleticism that comes with swapping Şengün for Thompson by dialing up more aggressive switching and cranked-up defensive pressure.

The Rockets can still nail the small stuff …

… but they also rank seventh in steals, deflections and opponent turnover rate since flipping the switch to small-ball. That, in turn, has led to further pace-pushing: Houston ranks sixth in the share of its offensive possessions that come in transition, fourth in points off of turnovers and third in fast-break points since Şengün's injury.

At the heart of that has been Thompson, a revelation as a 6-foot-7 Swiss army knife, averaging 14.5 points on 57% shooting, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals in 28.9 minutes per game. He's been guarding elite wing scorers on defense, providing end-to-end electricity in transition, hitting the offensive glass like his life depends on it, and ostensibly operating as a screen-and-dive, short-roll-playmaking center off of VanVleet and Green:

Smith, the third pick in the 2022 NBA draft, has not only continued his rise as a rock-solid two-way player, but shown signs of being a matchup weapon at the 5 spot — a 6-foot-11 shooter who can push drop-coverage bigs in the pick-and-pop, while also boasting enough strength and length to hold up against them on the block and on the boards.

The 20-year-old has averaged 19 points per 36 minutes on .627 true shooting since Şengün went down — up from 14.9 points-per-36 on .562 true shooting before — and the reconfigured starting five of Smith, Thompson, Green, VanVleet and Dillon Brooks has outscored opponents by 6.8 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

"As long as it's not a Jokić, [Joel] Embiid, one of those true back-to-the-basket bigs, we feel really confident with him guarding them better than they can guard him," Udoka told reporters.

Not many defenders in the league have been able to guard Green over the past five weeks — a stretch during which he went from an underwhelming off-guard hearing his name bandied about in trade talk to one of the most explosive scorers in the sport.

After early season struggles to get both his decision-making and shot-making online — 41% from the field and 31% from 3-point land at the All-Star break — Green has caught fire over his past 17 games, averaging 28 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game on 48/39/80 shooting splits. He's scored 25 or more points 13 times in that span, and made four or more 3s 11 times, mixing aggressive drives with pull-up jumpers at a level of efficiency and effectiveness that has kept opposing defenses off balance and Houston's offense on schedule.

"He has been the key to everything," VanVleet recently said. "Our confidence, our pace, our spacing, his guarding, and when he is on like that, it is another nuclear weapon to have out there that can go and get you 30 or 40 at any given time. It changes the way the defense is guarding."

Perhaps most important: Green has also dished four or more assists nine times, with five or more in each of his last four games, as he gets more comfortable using his scoring prowess as more than just an end in and of itself.

"That's the biggest thing with him: seeing the whole court, seeing how the defense is guarding him," Udoka recently told Kelly Iko of The Athletic. "And that's what we continue to preach, making him a well-rounded player offensively. That's been one of the biggest learning curves for him — not just looking to score for himself, but make the reads and get into other sets for everybody else."

Whether Green can continue scaling that curve — and continue putting up the kind of scoring, usage and efficiency numbers that have historically marked you as an All-Star —  is one of many intriguing questions that Houston faces from here.

How might this season's breakouts — Şengün early, Green late — influence the Rockets' roster management decisions come the summer, when both Şengün and Green become eligible for extensions of their rookie contracts? Their answer to that might depend on their answer to another question: How confident are they that Green can continue to perform like this when Şengün returns to the fold? (For what it's worth: Udoka disagrees with the notion that Şengün's absence sparked Green's ascent, noting both that Green had gotten the same quality of looks earlier in the season — an assertion backed up by Jared Dubin's dive into shot-quality data at Last Night in Basketball — and that Green's scoring uptick started before Şengün got hurt.)

What sort of role do they envision for Thompson, whose bricktastic shooting — just 41-for-151 (27.2%) outside the restricted area, and 8-for-56 (14.3%) from 3-point land — is much less of an impediment to floor-spacing when he's functioning as a center than when there's already a center there and he has to occupy the wing or handle the ball? How will rookie Cam Whitmore, who's shown flashes of eye-opening scoring punch in limited burn, and playmaker Tari Eason, limited by injury to just 22 games this season, fit into the wing rotation moving forward? And who might Houston's brass target with the unprotected 2024 first-round draft pick coming their way from the Brooklyn Nets courtesy of the 2021 Harden blockbuster — a pick that has a 23% chance of landing in the top four, and a 5% chance of winding up first overall?

Those are potentially franchise-defining questions; they are also tomorrow’s issues to resolve. The Rockets, for now, still have present-tense business to conduct, starting with Thursday night’s tilt against the Warriors, where they’ll hope to put together 48 minutes of the best ball they’ve got to offer.

"We see glimpses and signs of how close we can be," Udoka told Iko.

This is what growth looks like: first the glimpses, and then, with any luck, a bigger picture that’ll take your breath away.

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