Rockets look to improve on solid first-half

HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Rockets enter the All-Star break with an NBA-best seven-game winning streak and are third in the Western Conference.

The revamped team has come a long way, but as the Rockets prepare for the second half of the season they certainly aren’t satisfied.

”We still have a long way to go and it’s scary how good we can be,” James Harden said.

Harden has continued to shine in his second season in Houston and as a starter, averaging 23.9 points a game and getting his second straight All-Star nod. He and first-year Rocket Dwight Howard have proven to be a difficult one-two punch for opponents to handle.

Howard is averaging 18.8 points and is fourth in the NBA with 12.5 rebounds a game. He’s been hitting his stride during this streak, averaging almost 25 points a game. His recent dominance helped Houston beat San Antonio and Dallas to start the streak despite Harden sitting out with an injured thumb.

Howard joined the Rockets after a disappointing season with the Lakers where he admitted to not being 100 percent healthy and dealt with rumblings that he didn’t get along with Kobe Bryant. Things are completely different in Houston.

The gregarious big man is back to his old ways. He’s constantly smiling and joking with teammates, and often challenges players to show off their dance moves in the locker room after wins. Of course, he then displays his own and dissolves into laughter after a few seconds of getting down to the Rick Ross or Gucci Mane tunes piped into the locker room from his personal playlist.

”We enjoy each other,” Howard said. ”I’m happy to be here. The guys are happy to have me here and we’re just having a lot of fun. I think the biggest thing for our team is that we’re free, we’re able to have fun with each other, but when we step between the lines we know it’s serious.”

Howard knew that fitting in with a team that returned to the playoffs last year for the first time since 2009 would take some time. He thinks the Rockets are starting to develop a good chemistry and hopes they’re able to establish an identity before the postseason rolls around.

”We all care for each other and the care is starting to show on the field,” he said. ”We’re getting better at certain things, but it takes time.”

Another key to Houston’s success so far has been the emergence of Terrence Jones. The 22-year-old was the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Kentucky, but played just 19 games as a rookie last year. He scored a career-high 36 points in a win over the Bucks last month to become the second-youngest Rocket to have a 30-point game behind Hakeem Olajuwon.

”He’s won so many games for us thus far with his beautiful performances,” Harden said. ”He’s only going to get better. He works on his game every day and he’s a tremendous part of this team.”

Jones has started 43 games and is averaging 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds this season. He’s also became a crowd favorite with his acrobatic dunks.

Houston recently got a boost with the return of 7-footer Omer Asik, a key piece of the rotation for his defense and rebounding. He appeared in the last three games before the break after sitting out with injuries since Dec. 2.

Harden believes Asik’s return along with a few other players getting healthy after various injuries has been integral to Houston’s recent run.

”It’s all of the success,” he said when asked what role health has played in the winning streak. ”Having the guys back, our entire team helps us a lot to get guys comfortable in their roles and their spots.”