James Harden’s team are on a 17-game winning streak and the Western Conference playoffs no longer look like a foregone conclusion
When Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the summer of 2016, many NBA fans resigned themselves to a new basketball reality for the foreseeable future: every season would end with the inevitable and anticlimactic Warriors v whatever-Eastern-team-LeBron-is-on Finals. That was the new and future NBA. The Warriors, then LeBron, then everyone else a very distant third.
Enter the Houston Rockets. With Wednesday night’s 110-99 road win over Milwaukee, Houston have now won 17 games in a row and sit a full game ahead of the Warriors in the West with just 16 regular season games to play. There’s a real chance the Western Conference Finals will go through Houston and some have begun to wonder if the NBA Finals may do too.
“I expect to beat them,” Rockets center Clint Capela said back in December of the Warriors, a quote that raised a lot of eyebrows and a few chuckles. But Capela has every reason to be confident. The offseason additions of Chris Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker have turned Houston’s defense from a weakness to a strength – with Capela on the back end serving as rim protector with 1.78 blocks per game, sixth-best in the NBA. And while Capela’s quote no longer elicits laughter, the story is the same for the defense played by Rockets star James Harden. Once laissez-faire, his defensive play is now can be graded as, well ... fair. A recent deep-dive into defensive analytics by ESPN graded Harden as an above-average defender at his position this season. You can argue that if you’d like with the eye test, but the volume of video clips of Harden getting blown like his controller is disconnected has waned a bit on social media in 2018. Take that for data.
But it’s Harden’s offense that has elevated him to the top of the MVP race this season. Paul’s ability to make plays and find the open shooter has made Harden even more dangerous and he’s letting the ball fly with confidence. Harden ranks first in the league in scoring, second in field goal attempts and first in three-point attempts with a career-high 10.5 per game. Harden isn’t the only Rockets player firing from long range, however. Houston have taken Golden State’s embrace of the three and literally expanded it to the farthest reaches of the court. The Rockets average an eye-popping 42.4 three-point attempts per game, nearly 13 more per game than the Warriors and seven more per game than the next closest team, the Brooklyn Nets. More than half of the field goals the Rockets take are from three, making them the sole member of that exclusive club.