Three Things to Know: Rockets drain record 26 threes, have turned season around… kinda

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Houston knocks down NBA record 26 three-pointers in fifth straight win. They have turned things around… kinda. Wednesday night’s win against Washington in a lot of ways looked like the last four games for Houston: James Harden went off (35 points), the Rockets defense was good enough, and that meant a win.

What was different: Houston set an NBA single-game record hitting 26 threes (on 55 shot attempts).

Washington’s defense was atrocious. The Rockets took 85 total shots in the game, 60 of them were uncontested (using the NBA’s Second Spectrum data, which is imperfect but validates the point about the Wizards’ defensive effort). That doesn’t invalidate what the Rockets did, just pointing out that Washington made it all possible.

Not every fan will love that Houston took 64.7 percent of their shots from three, but that’s what the Rockets should do if Washington isn’t going to run them off the line. Which the Wizards did not.

That’s five straight wins for the Rockets, who are now 16-14 and would be the seven seed if the playoffs started today.

Have the Rockets turned their season around? Well, kinda. They have fought their way back into playoff positioning and the combination we’ve seen in this win streak — MVP-level play from James Harden sparking an elite offense, with the defense being average and that’s good enough — can keep them in the playoffs in the West. But that was not the goal in Houston — the Rockets want to be contenders. This is a team that was up on the Warriors at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season, they want to be a team that can take that next step. They want to be a threat to win it all, and even this improved Rockets team is not that yet. The defense is better but not good enough. They lack the depth needed on the wing (GM Daryl Morey is trying to fix that heading into the trade deadline).

So yes, the Rockets are better. But they are not where they wanted to be this season, not even close.

2) Foreshadowing? Shorthanded Raptors show mettle in comeback win against Pacers, while Celtics lose to Suns. The conventional wisdom around the league about the East right now is that it will come down to Toronto and Boston. Maybe the Bucks can crack into that group (they are right there, but there are defensive questions in a playoff matchup), and after those three it’s half a step back to the Sixers (as currently constructed without enough depth) and the Pacers.

Boston has work to do to live up to that faith in them.

The Celtics had racked up eight wins in a row against a softer part of the schedule but now has dropped two straight, one to the Pistons and one Wednesday night at home to the lowly Suns. A game where the hated-in-Boston Kelly Oubre returned, was booed, then stuck a dagger in the Celtics and blew kisses to the crowd.

Was that Celtics’ win streak a mirage? We’ll get a good measuring stick in the next week: Friday they host the Bucks, Christmas Day they host the Sixers, then the Celtics hit the road to take on the Rockets and Grizzlies. The schedule is getting tougher, is Boston up to it?

Toronto, on the other hand, is doing what elite teams do — finding ways to win, even key players out.

No Kyle Lowry. No Serge Ibaka. And the Pacers were in control, up 17 (77-60) with five minutes to go in the third. Then Kawhi Leonard led the way (scoring 11 of his 28 on the night in this stretch) and the Raptors closed out the game on a 39-19 run over the final 17 minutes to get the win. Fred VanVleet knocked down the shot that gave Toronto the lead for good.

I hear you Pacers fans: That was a bad call at the end of the game. The Pacers needed a three to tie, got the ball to Bojan Bogdanovic beyond the arc and OG Anunoby reached in and fouled him as Bogdanovic started to go up. Unquestionably. But that’s not why the Pacers lost the game — blow a 17 point lead in the final 17 minutes and you don’t get to put the blame on the officials for one call. The Pacers deserved to lose that game the way they played down the stretch.

3) Derrick Rose is back and fun to watch. Savor this. I’ll admit it: I thought he was washed. So many seasons of watching Derrick Rose struggle after his knee injuries, watching his struggle with the craft of his game once he was robbed of his explosiveness, had me thinking he was done.

Rose is back — averaging 19 points a game, knocking down threes better than he ever has (46.9 percent on 3.3 attempts per game), getting to the rim, managing games, being efficient (his 58 true shooting percentage would be a career high), and he’s just flat-out fun to watch right now.

Monday night he dropped 33 for the Timberwolves in an eventual loss to the Pistons.

Rose is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this season and he is all the way back. At age 30, he’s not the same player he was in his early 20s in Chicago, he’s something else entirely. Rose has reinvented himself, and it’s beautiful to watch.

Savor this while we can. Rose is having a redemptive season, showing how hard work and belief in yourself can pay off, and it is one of the best stories in the NBA this season.