HOUSTON -- Having spent far too much time ranked among the dregs of the league defensively, the Rockets aren't exactly in the position to expect lasting defensive might.
Improvement on the defensive end, even if only incremental, is sufficient at this stage. The Rockets (15-14) have worked their way back above .500 and within striking distance of first place in the Southwest Division by winning four consecutive games. And they've done so by more closely resembling the defensive unit that many expected they'd be entering the season.
Houston has produced a 107.1 defensive rating during its streak, not exactly a sterling mark but good enough to rank in the middle of the league pack over that stretch of games. In order for the Rockets to match their season-long winning streak of five games, they'll need more vigorous defense on Wednesday, when they host the Washington Wizards at Toyota Center.
"We've been a little bit more aggressive on defense," Rockets guard Chris Paul said. "We're getting into the ball, making them make tough decisions, and not just sitting back in a rocking chair. We're switching things up here and there."
The Rockets have literally switched things up defensively of late, moving away from their switch-everything philosophy to a more judicious approach in avoiding mismatches. That adjustment has allowed for their new rotation players to settle in while also alleviating some stress placed on center Clint Capela, tasked too often with defending guards on the perimeter.
Initiating such a drastic change 20-plus games into a season requires collective dexterity. The Rockets appear to be making progress on that front by focusing intently on the minutiae.
"Just how hard we're playing and attention to detail," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of keys behind their recent surge. "James (Harden) is playing at an MVP level if not better. He's off the charts. And just guys are buying in and knowing the situation and trying to make it better.
"Every play we're connected defensively and talking. We do make our mistakes, but they talk about it and get it better like last year. And yeah, just the overall chemistry, atmosphere is better. And just maybe that's winning; it cures a lot of stuff. It starts with hard work and they're doing that, and then maybe that leads to a better feeling about everything."
The Wizards (12-19) were unable to build on the momentum of their impressive win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, losing 118-110 on Tuesday to the Atlanta Hawks. That game showcased the return of forward Trevor Ariza, who was re-acquired over the weekend from the Phoenix Suns. Ariza posted 19 points, eight rebounds, six steals and four assists in 38 minutes.
Given his reputation as a respected veteran and previous tenure in Washington (2012-14), Ariza is viewed as someone capable of helping steer the Wizards' wayward ship.
"I've always been the type of person or player whatever is asked of me to do, I try to do to the best of my ability," Ariza said.
"They were struggling a little bit, but they couldn't have been struggling worse than what I was struggling with. Being here, I plan to come in and just try to work through whatever it is that we are going through at the time."