With many teams approaching the halfway point (41 games played) of their seasons, the picture is beginning to clear up a little bit when it comes to the group of teams hoping to prevent Cleveland and Golden State from meeting in the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season. One team that's made quite the statement in the affirmative is Houston, with the Rockets having won their last eight games. After winning 41 games last season with a roster that lacked cohesion, under Mike D'Antoni the Rockets have looked like a well-oiled machine thus far. Guard James Harden has been producing MVP-caliber performances on a consistent basis, the supplementary pieces fit well around him, and the defense has improved throughout the course of the season.
And in regards to that last point, Houston's doing this without injured starting center Clint Capela. Second-year forward Montrezl Harrell had stepped up his production in the aftermath of Capela's injury, and in Sunday's win over the Raptors he contributed 28 points (12-for-13 FG) and five rebounds off the bench. In a road game in which Rockets other than Harden (4-for-9) and Trevor Ariza (5-for-10) combined to shoot 2-for-19 from three, Houston beat the Raptors due in large part to the defense played on Kyle Lowry. Lowry shot just 2-for-7 from the field, and even with DeMarre Carroll chipping in with 26 points Toronto isn't at their best when Lowry is held in check.
Are the Rockets a title contender? To this point in the season they've looked the part, and at minimum this is a team capable of winning once in the playoffs. Here are this week's NBA power rankings, with Charlotte and Oklahoma City dropping out and Atlanta and the Clippers being the replacements. (Getty)