HOUSTON -- It was early in the season when James Harden's patience was tested most.
The Houston Rockets had lost their first three games by an average of 20 points, and nothing was working.
Yet here was Harden, the Rockets' best player, telling anyone who would listen to wait because things would improve. It had undergone several changes. Dwight Howard, Harden's superstar counterpart, reiterated that message.
Harden said the struggles reminded him of what the Cleveland Cavaliers went through in their first season with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James together. Indeed, the Cavs started 5-7 last season and sat 19-20 in mid-January 2015, having lost six consecutive games, five of which came with James inactive.
But the Cavs improved, beginning with a 12-game winning streak, and they eventually pushed themselves to the NBA Finals before losing to Golden State.
That's what gave Harden hope through an 0-3 start and the firing of coach Kevin McHale. True to his words, the Rockets have gotten better, their heads above .500 (21-19) and riding a season-high five-game winning streak as they host the Cavs on Friday night (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Rockets are not an elite team, something general manager Daryl Morey and team owner Leslie Alexander expected, but they are much improved. Still, there's work that needs to be done.
"I'm worried given our goals," Morey said. "We still have a lot of improvement to do and we're working towards that."
Added Harden: "We're playing a lot better than a month ago. So that feeling is different. Now we got to figure out how to be on the same page at all times. These last few games have offered some tests, we've been through some adversity and we figured it out together against some good teams. Hopefully we can keep that streak going on."
Let's look at five things the Rockets have done to right the ship:
During the Rockets' five-game winning streak, opponents scored fewer than 100 points three times and averaged 96.6 PPG. With J.B. Bickerstaff as the coach, the defensive efficiency has improved from 106.5 in 11 games under McHale to 104.5.
"We're more aggressive, playing harder and we're rebounding better," forward Corey Brewer said. "Once we rebound and we're aggressive, we're going to be fine."
True, there still are defensive lapses, particularly with Harden along the perimeter and in the frontcourt, where the Rockets struggle with backdoor cuts. In losses to less talented teams such as Brooklyn and Denver, the Rockets were outrebounded. They have the third-worst field goal percentage defense at 46.5 percent.
Yet the team does have Howard, third in the league in rebounding at 11.9, and Clint Capela at power forward, with his 2.2 defensive box plus/minus.
Better 3-point shooting
Last season, the Rockets set an NBA single-season record for 3-pointers. That rate hasn't stopped. This season, the Rockets average the most 3-point field goal attempts at 30.3 and are second in 3s made at 10.7.
"We're taking the same shots as we did last year, but we're just making them now," Brewer said.
This season, the Rockets have had 13 games in which they shot at least 20 percent from 3-point range. That happened 24 times in all of last season. Bickerstaff said the team will continue to shoot 3s, but he doesn't believe that's all this team does.
Good ball movement helps the Rockets most, particularly when it gets Howard involved in the offense. In the past seven games, Howard has been outstanding with 20.3 PPG, 13.6 rebounds and a 68.9 shooting percentage. When teams double on Howard, it opens the offense for more 3s, something the Rockets are now taking advantage of.
The revival of Patrick Beverley
One of the biggest changes under Bickerstaff was benching Ty Lawson as the starting point guard and inserting Beverley. Last season, Beverley was the starter and when the team acquired Lawson in a trade with Denver, the theory was to have someone create in the backcourt and take the scoring load off Harden.
It hasn't worked. Lawson is better suited coming off the bench, and Beverley is playing fantastic of late. In the past eight games, Beverley is averaging 11.8 points and shooting 52.4 percent from the floor.
The Rockets just seem to flow better with Beverley as the starter on offense, and he has been a key defensive player at the point as well. With Beverley starting, it keeps Harden as the main ball handler, which frees him up to take more jumpers. This season, 52.2 percent of Beverley's shot attempts have come from 3-point range, where he's making a career-high 43.1 percent.
"I just trying to be more aggressive," Beverley said. "I've tried to stay positive, get in the gym early, couple of hours and work on my craft. I have more opportunities, play off the catch, and take advantage of my opportunities from my teammates. James and Dwight require a lot of attention, double teams of that sort. It's up to me and Trevor [Ariza] to help this team to make plays."
Changing the roster?
Here is a case where we thought the Rockets would make changes, but they didn't. Make no mistake, the desire to trade players remains despite the improved record. The Rockets talked to teams about trades regarding forward Terrence Jones and Brewer. Lawson's reps sought more playing time elsewhere and there was a report Howard wanted out, something he disputed.
When the Rockets signed second-round pick Montrezl Harrell to a three-year, $3.1 million deal during the summer, it used a portion of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, pushing them to the apron level of a hard salary cap of $88.7 million. Morey is limited in what he can do because he can't take on a huge salary for this season with the hard cap.
Harden, hold on to the ball
Harden is averaging a career-high 28 PPG, second in the league to Stephen Curry. Harden leads the league in minutes played (1,508), free throws attempted (405) and made (351), but there is one stat he wishes he didn't lead: turnovers (186). Harden sits just 14th in the league in touches per game at 83.6 percent but leads in isolation plays at 27.6 percent. A majority of his turnovers are aggressive ones -- moves to the paint where he tries to find the open man. He struggles at times trying to bounce passes through defenders on screens.
"Patience, just testing my leadership, testing everything, me as a basketball player," Harden said. "[Asking myself] 'Am I built for this?' I know I am. There are a lot of tests I've been put through in these last three or four years, not a lot of people can get through. Me being a strong-minded individual that I am, being surrounded by some really good people, I just continue to work through it and fight through it and good things will happen."