After winning 11 straight games, the Houston Rockets lost four straight and have been eliminated from contention for the play-in tournament.

The Rockets had a second chance to make their play-in hopes interesting on Sunday following the Golden State Warriors' loss to the Dallas Mavericks 48 hours earlier. However, a horrid collapse befell the Rockets against that very same team, culminating in a game-tying shot at the fourth-quarter buzzer.occurring in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.

Houston had every chance to beat Dallas to keep their play-in hopes alive. The Rockets led the entire game up until the final eight seconds, no thanks to a couple of missed free throws by Jabari Smith Jr. and failing to commit a foul in the final possession when the Rockets led by three.

Dante Exum's three at the buzzer sent the game to overtime, shifting all of the momentum to Houston's in-state rival. Dallas quickly took its first lead in the extra session, inevitably running away with a come-from-behind 147-136 victory.

Rockets are no cakewalk

Houston Rockets shooting guard Jalen Green (4) dunks the ball during the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center
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So what's the goal now, given Hosuton's recent elimination? First off, lets look at how the Rockets got here.

At the peak of their winning streak, the Rockets were one game behind the Warriors for 10th in the Western Conference, with the chance to play postseason basketball for the first time since the NBA bubble in 2020. It also took them 78 out of the 82 regular season games to get bounced from postseason contention, much later in the season than the past three years.

Houston also completed that feat with a ton of major setbacks, initially with the loss of key bench piece Kevin Porter Jr. to an off-court issue a month before the start of the regular season. Additionally, season-ending injuries dealt to key players Tari Eason and Alperen Sengun left Houston's depth almost powerless.

As a result, the Rockets relied on Jalen Green and Fred VanVleet more than ever down the stretch. Green caught lightning in a bottle, almost winning the NBA's Western Conference Player of the Month in March. While he cooled off a bit at the start of April, it doesn't mean he went back down to his inconsistent play prior to the All-Star break.

Rockets coach Ime Udoka recently chimed in on Green's overall growth.

“[Green's] been great. It’s been impressive,” Udoka said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “It did not go unnoticed the strides he’s been making from the reads offensively to defensively and being all-around, taking challenges every night and doing things every night he’s never been required to do. He’s really taken big steps this year….. I think he’s grown tremendously. We’re very proud of the growth he’s had this year, but he also understands he can take another step.”

Additional improvements

Houston Rockets forward Cam Whitmore (7) celebrates with forward Amen Thompson (1) after a play during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center
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Rookies Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore received a significant amount of playing time as rookies, especially after the losses of Eason and Sengun.

Thompson, who took Sengun's place in the starting lineup upon the latter's injury, thrived in that role, averaging 13.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 19 games as a starter. Whitmore, always looking to score at will, averaged 12.3 points on 45.8% shooting in just 18.3 minutes. If you can do the math, that's 24.1 points in 36 minutes, which reaches All-Star level scoring.

Along with the more measured yet strong development of 2022 No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. and VanVleet and Dillon Brooks looking right at home in a Rockets uniform, you've got a solid team that just needs more experience under their belt. The last several games have featured a playoff atmosphere, especially with impressive wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers without the services of Sengun.

Speaking of Sengun, the Rockets would not be where they are without him. The Turkish center was undisputedly Houston's best overall player up until his injury last month, averaging 21.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, and five assists in 63 games. At just 21 years old, Sengun has plenty more to develop and is becoming one of the best centers in the NBA.

Plan B

Returning back to the question, it's simple: The Rockets need to finish the season strong. No play-in, but there's four games left until the regular season's conclusion. Winning games is still possible. Technically, quitting now won't do much short term, but these next several games are important in the long run.

The next four games are against the Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers and LA Clippers. Ending on a high note is beneficial as it positions the team for several positive trajectories entering an important offseason.

Moreover, the Rockets are two wins away from achieving 40 wins, a number much nicer than 38. Winning all four would be ideal, as they'd finish the season over .500, which is more than what Houston fans would ask for at this point. If anything, the Rockets have a chance to spoil both the Magic and Clippers' playoff positioning.