A pair of murals decorate the Toyota Center hallway outside the Houston Rockets‘ locker room, two floor-to-ceiling collages of photos and newspaper clips celebrating the franchise’s most memorable accomplishments.
The first features the Rockets teams that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. It honors Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, coach Rudy Tomjanovich and the rest of the Rockets from the teams that coined the “Clutch City” nickname and delivered the franchise’s only two NBA championships.
The second is dedicated to the franchise-record 22-game winning streak, at the time the second-longest in NBA history, by the 2007-08 Rockets led by Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. There is no mention of that season’s playoffs, when a stress fracture in Yao’s foot sidelined him and the Utah Jazz eliminated Houston in the first round.
Those murals might serve as a reminder of the big picture, so to speak, for the current edition of the Rockets, if necessary. It’s not needed, as the Rockets collectively shrug at the relevance of the 17-game winning streak they’re riding entering Friday night’s road game against the Toronto Raptors, a clash between teams atop the standings in their respective conferences.
It’s nice to have the longest winning streak in the NBA this season, but these Rockets don’t want anything associated with the regular season to be a focal point of their future mural. They certainly aren’t in the mood to celebrate right now.
“We know with us that everything is about building for the playoffs,” Rockets guard Chris Paul told ESPN, a sentiment echoed by the rest of the Rockets. “All this stuff is what it is. It’s part of the process. We know what really matters for us.”
Paul, whose decision last summer to join forces with James Harden gave the Rockets the chance to emerge as legitimate challengers to the Golden State Warriors, can point to personal experience. The LA Clippers had a 17-game winning streak during the 2012-13 season, Paul’s first in Lob City, but bowed out in the first round, with Blake Griffin‘s ankle injury serving as an untimely factor.
Paul has referenced that Clippers’ winning streak — the ensuing playoff disappointment implied — on a few occasions recently. But those conversations were with media members, not teammates, as a way of explaining why Paul won’t get caught up in any hype about the streak.
“I don’t think we talk about it at all,” forward Trevor Ariza said before flunking a pop quiz on the length of the Rockets’ winning streak, guessing a game low.
“It doesn’t even cross my mind, I swear,” forward P.J. Tucker said.
“We hoop, try to stay healthy, try to have fun, and whatever happens, happens,” Paul said. “We just try to stay in the moment. Stay in the moment, not try to think about all that stuff. Just keep hooping and leave all that other stuff for everybody else to talk about.”
For those who want to look ahead, the Rockets are halfway to breaking the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers‘ 33-game win streak record for the longest winning streak in NBA history; win No. 34 would come against the Lakers at Staples Center on April 10.
That record isn’t the Rockets’ goal, but there’s no reason to dismiss the possibility. After all, Houston is a ridiculous 34-1 when Harden, Paul and center Clint Capela all play, with the lone loss coming by a two-point margin to the New Orleans Pelicans.
And a team that’s “just out there swaggin’ and hoopin’,” as Harden put it after Wednesday’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks, believes it’s capable of running the table.
“If we get through these next few games without a loss,” sixth man Eric Gordon said before the road trip that started Tuesday in Oklahoma City, “I don’t really see us losing.”
The Raptors, winners of 13 of the last 14 games, present a formidable obstacle. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index considers Toronto a slight favorite in Friday’s game due to having home-court advantage. It’s the only time the Rockets will be BPI underdogs the rest of the regular season, according to ESPN Stats and Info research.
Houston has been BPI favorites in all but two games so far this season — the exceptions coming in their two wins over the Warriors.
The Rockets’ winning streak has allowed them to keep a slim edge on the Warriors in the fight for home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals, should the teams with the two best records in the NBA meet. Houston (51-13) has a half-game lead over the Warriors, and the Rockets own the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the regular-season series.
However, the consensus coming from the Rockets is that their focus needs to be firmly on themselves, on improving finer details, on putting themselves in position to peak in the postseason. Not looking ahead toward history. Not peeking over their shoulders at the Warriors.
“When I tell you that we don’t even talk about it, we don’t. We really don’t, man,” Tucker told ESPN. “Coach [Mike D’Antoni] talks about us obviously wanting to be first place and have home-court [advantage throughout the playoffs], but even more than that, we want to be on the same page as a team. We want to have that feeling going into the playoffs that we really think we can go in and win every single game we play.
“We think we have the best team, top to bottom, in the NBA. If we control us, everything we want will happen.”