For the past three seasons, most of the NBA would consider a November trip to Houston to be a free win. The Rockets had the NBA’s worst record in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, and, last season, improved only to the second-worst slot. But after three years of tanking, the Rockets had finally had enough. They went into this season planning to win, and, so far, they’ve succeeded.
Led by new coach Ime Udoka and free-agent additions Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, the 6-3 Rockets have climbed up to the No. 4 slot in the Western Conference. Before this season, they hadn’t held a top-four seed in the West for a single calendar day since Aug. 14, 2020. If Sunday was any indication, though, this team plans to get comfortable atop the standings and stay there for quite awhile.
The defending champion Denver Nuggets came to Houston with the NBA’s best record on Sunday at 8-1. The Rockets hadn’t beaten the Nuggets in a game in which Denver was playing for actual stakes since January 2020. But these aren’t the Rockets of the past several years. In perhaps their biggest game since trading James Harden, the Rockets defeated the Nuggets, 107-104.
It was their sixth straight victory after starting the season 0-3, and the new faces led the way on both sides of the ball. VanVleet’s 26 points led the Rockets, while Brooks spearheaded a defense that held Denver to its second-fewest points of the season. A 23-point, eight-rebound, five-assist outing from Alperen Sengun, who has called Nuggets center Nikola Jokic his “basketball idol,” ultimately proved enough to overcome a furious Denver comeback attempt in the final five minutes.
It’s too early to say where the Rockets ultimately finish this season, but they didn’t earn their sixth win until their 22nd game last season. If nothing else, the disorganized mess of a basketball team that wasn’t even trying to win over the last several years is now gone. The Rockets can beat anyone in their current state, and Sunday’s victory over the defending champion proves it.