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McHale deserves credit for Rockets' rise

Kevin McHale guided the Rockets to a 56-26 record, the Southwest Division crown and the No. 2 seed in the West. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

HOUSTON -- The NBA Coach of the Year is probably the Atlanta Hawks' Mike Budenholzer or the Golden State Warriors' Steve Kerr. It's hard to ignore a franchise-record 60-win season given how the Hawks' offseason turmoil was contained when GM Danny Ferry took his leave of absence, or a 67-win season for the Warriors.

However, there is a guy in Houston who coached through a combined 180 missed games due to injuries, earned the Southwest Division title and a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

With the Houston Rockets' 117-91 victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, cranky old Kevin McHale should get some credit -- votes even -- for the job he's done this season.

McHale probably won't care if he gets a single vote because that's how he was raised in the game. You don't play this game for awards; you play for titles. He learned from the best: Red Auerbach. Hey, McHale won a title in his rookie year with the Boston Celtics and when that happens, you're not worried about some division title. You have bigger aspirations.

And with the regular season concluding, McHale has his Rockets in good position to compete for a title as they start the playoffs against their I-45 rival, the Dallas Mavericks.

Sure the road is hard given Golden State won 67 games and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs finished the regular season winning nine of 10 games.

We're not even going to discuss the East and how Cleveland and Atlanta might face off in the conference finals.

You just can't dismiss the Rockets, who are rolling into the playoffs on a three-game win streak to close the season.

"The guys just found a way and they went out there and played hard," McHale said. "They got after it and it's a credit to those guys. They didn't use excuses -- we didn't have any big 'next man up' speeches, we just went out and played."

They were led by James Harden, who finished second for the scoring title with 27.4 points a game and quite possibly the MVP award as well.

Harden closed with his fourth triple-double of the season: 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

McHale pointed out veteran Trevor Ariza, who won an NBA title with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, as another key component to this group. Ariza finished with just six points on Wednesday, but over a five-game stretch in early April he averaged 18.2 points per game.

It's hard to forget that two-game losing streak to the Spurs last week, yet in McHale's mind it was like those losses were in another century.

He told his team to keep playing and not to worry about the scoreboard -- just control what you can control.

When the Rockets lost those two games to the Spurs, it seemed a division title was slipping from their reach and they were headed for a playoff matchup they probably wouldn't like.

Now? A 2-seed.

How about that?

"It's a blessing," Dwight Howard said. "The regular season was great but whatever happened in the regular season, we've got to put that behind us. This is a whole new season and we've gotta come out ready to go."

McHale has juggled the lineup while missing Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Howard to injuries.

General manager Daryl Morey acquired three veteran players in-season -- Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni -- to help with depth.

When Beverley went down for the season, McHale inserted Jason Terry and Prigioni in the backcourt. With Howard out, Joey Dorsey, Smith and Motiejunas moved into the frontcourt. When Motiejunas was done for the year, McHale squeezed in rookie Clint Capela and Howard, now on a minutes restriction, along with Smith.

"It's been real great, [McHale's] definitely a veteran's coach," said Smith, who scored 13 points in 18 minutes off the bench on Wednesday. "He instills a lot of confidence in his players. Whenever you can be up under a coach like that, it benefits you tremendously as a veteran."

Of course, having Harden around helps. McHale ran the offense through the shooting guard and turned him into a playmaker. Along with a coaching staff stressing ball movement, spacing and tough defense, the Rockets posted the third-best record in franchise history (56-26).

"It shows the character of this team," Harden said. "No matter what, we had a lot of adversity this season. A lot of injuries. A lot of things didn't go our way, but we didn't complain. We didn't back down from anything. We kept fighting. We just kept battling through whatever came our way."

The Rockets haven't won a playoff series in four seasons under McHale, and have just one postseason series win overall since 1997. Yet, given this matchup with the Mavericks and the way McHale has juggled things, this could be the year.

"Now the fun starts," McHale said. "Now the real season begins."