Dwight Howard (12) and Jeremy Lin (7) are two players the Rockets are hoping will revitalize the team. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Dwight Howard (12) and Jeremy Lin (7) are two players the Rockets are hoping will revitalize the team. (Matt Slocum/AP)

It’s Saturday night at Toyota Center in downtown Houston.  In a festive gathering lit by gleaming office towers, fans decked out in Rockets red mingle before the game under a huge cutout image of Dwight Howard in action.

The Rockets have always been a popular draw, but fans say this year something is different.  There’s a feeling in the air, similar to when the Rockets had Houston in a frenzy with back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.

But what makes this season special?  Longtime fan Steve Flores explains.

“I think we’re going to go deeper than we’ve been in the past. I would hope that we could go to the Western Conference finals. I like the tempo. We’re playing a fast tempo and I’m really looking forward to this season.”

And Houston sports fans need something to keep their spirits up, considering the Astros ended the season with the worst record in Major League Baseball and the Texans are playing with a third string quarterback after a string of debilitating losses.

Rockets fan Alex Anguiano says it’s great to have that winning feeling back.

“Oh, the vibe this year is great. I mean, everyone is on the bandwagon this year. From last year to this year, it’s just amazing. I’m happy for Houston and let’s go Rockets.”

So what’s been going on with the Rockets over the past two decades? After winning titles in ’94 and ’95, the Rockets lost in the 1997 Western Conference Finals.

Since then, Houston has only made sporadic playoff appearances. In most cases they fell in the first round.

Houston Press sports reporter Jeff Balke says the Rockets tried to get their mojo back by drafting the towering Yao Ming in 2002 and signing free agent Tracy McGrady in 2004.

“And everyone thought that would be the team that would take them back to the title. Unfortunately injuries and a mix of other players that didn’t quite live up to what they had hoped never really got them there. This is the first time in the last 20 years where the Rockets really do have real promise.”

That optimism now comes from key players like Howard, the center and power forward who came to Houston from the Lakers last summer.

Howard is paired with “The Beard.” That’s James Harden, the standout shooting guard who’s been putting up big numbers for the Rockets since he was acquired last year from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Also in the mix, point guard Jeremy Lin, who’s settling into his role off the bench after the “Linsanity” of his surprising New York Knicks career.

Coaching the Rockets is Kevin McHale. He’s the Hall-of-Famer who’s been with Houston since 2011.

Balke says the team’s current makeup is primarily the work of Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who he calls a “mad scientist” when it comes to picking players.

“He’s sort of changing the way the NBA handles player analysis, using data metrics and the types of things you saw in Moneyball and applying those statistical analysis models to basketball, along with traditional player evaluation.”

The metrics came up with a youthful group, mostly under the age of 30, a lively, athletic team that likes to score, but like a lot of young teams, doesn’t always like the hard work of defense.

Veteran Rockets reporter M.K. Bower covers the team for the Houston website CultureMap.  He says once the Rockets clean up their mistakes, a decent playoff run isn’t out of the question.

“I think for this team, particularly the youth and the relative inexperience, opening the postseason at home would be a huge plus for them. Finishing in the top four, getting a desirable match-up in the first round, and seeing if you can advance in the postseason for the first time in a long time.”

As for immediate challenges, the Rockets are getting ready for tough games later this month against interstate rivals Dallas and San Antonio.