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When I wrote at the end of November that this year’s Houston Rockets were downright terrifying, I fielded a lot of responses from fans and fellow writers urging me to pump the brakes. The consensus response: let’s wait until we see more than a month and a half of games before deciding that this team is a legitimate quarry for the defending-champion Golden State Warriors.
Well, three months later, the Rockets are now 48-13, owners of the best record in the NBA. They have won 14 straight games, the league’s longest winning streak and their second 14-game run this season.
Houston is a nearly unbelievable 31-1 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela are all in the lineup. They boast the NBA’s No. 2 offense and, in stark contrast to what many might expect from a Harden-led, Mike D’Antoni-coached team, its No. 9 defense, making the Rockets one of just three teams (Golden State and the East-leading Toronto Raptors are the other two) to rank among the league’s 10 best on both sides of the ball.
The Rockets are feeling understandably confident, then, as they head into the last six weeks of the regular season and begin preparing for what they expect will be a long postseason run. How confident? Enough for Harden to call his shot, it seems. From ESPN’s Jovan Buha:
“This is the year. For sure,” Harden told ESPN on Tuesday in an exclusive interview when asked what his expectations for the Rockets are this season. […]
“The front office — [general manager] Daryl Morey and [CEO] Tad Brown — those guys did an unbelievable job,” Harden said. “From last year, bringing [Eric Gordon] and [Ryan Anderson] over. Then obviously adding [Chris Paul] and [PJ Tucker] and [Luc Mbah a Moute] and then you get [Gerald Green] and Joe Johnson.
“This is probably the best team I’ve ever been a part of, from top to bottom. The chemistry that we have, included with the coaching staff — I mean, we’re having a lot of fun.”
It’s easy to see why. Harden leads this year’s Most Valuable Player race. Paul has been absolutely lethal, both alongside Harden and when the Beard sits; Houston has blitzed opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions in nearly 650 minutes with CP3 on the floor and Harden off it, according to NBAwowy.com.
Capela has developed into a model rim-running paint protector, the perfect low-usage high-efficiency interior impediment for Houston’s system. And with a cadre of tough, versatile wings (Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, midstream additions Gerald Green and Joe Johnson) and a variety of playable reserve bigs (Nene, Tarik Black, recent signing Brandan Wright), the Rockets can withstand important absences and beat you in just about whatever style you want. On Monday, they downsized to force Rudy Gobert into a mismatch, played Mbah a Moute at center down the stretch, and just choked out a pretty good Jazz team on the road. They’ve weaponized space, learned how to lock down and, oh, right, beaten the Warriors two out of the three times they’ve played this season.
Harden’s comments aren’t anything new, really. The Rockets haven’t made any bones about believing they’ve got Golden State’s number this season. You might remember that, after beating the Warriors in January, Capela said Houston was flat-out better than the champs. That, naturally, elicited a sharp rebuke from Warriors star Kevin Durant, who suggested that role players with “easier” jobs should refrain from weighing in on such high-level matters. Harden, though, ain’t no role player, and he clearly feels Houston’s got next.
The Warriors, for their part, seem pretty content to just let the Rockets keep talking.
“It’s never a guarantee that we’re going to play the Rockets,” forward Draymond Green told Sports Illustrated during a recent interview. “We have such a long ways to go, and if we are to meet up with the Rockets, it’ll be in the conference finals. There are so many good teams that we’ll have to take down to even get to that point, and the Rockets, as well. You’ve just got focus one day at a time, one game at a time and, when you get to the playoffs, one series at a time. Maybe we end up playing the Rockets. I like our chances no matter who we play.
“But we do know that they’re a threat,” he added. “They’ve added some great pieces and, as it’s been highly publicized, that team is built to beat us. Noted. Great. We’ll see y’all soon.”
Ahead of the Warriors’ Wednesday win over the Washington Wizards, Stephen Curry responded to the confidence coming out of Houston with what amounts to a nod and a shrug, according to Anthony Slater of The Athletic:
“What are they supposed to say? If I was in the same [expletive], I’d say the same thing. We were probably saying the same thing four years ago when we were chasing our first championship. I would either think they’re lying or be seriously concerned if they were saying anything different than what is being rumored they’re saying, their confidence and all that.
“[…] There is so much time before we battle it out — not just with Houston but with all those teams in the West, fighting it out for the conference. Everyone gotta have that confidence, whether it’s rational or not.”
“Whether it’s rational or not.” “Whether it’s rational or not!” Drink deeply of that kicker, friends. Enjoy its mouthfeel.
The Rockets, to date, have done everything they can do to build the case that they merit consideration among the biggest in-conference threats the Warriors have faced over the last four years, right up there with the 2016 Thunder and 2017 Spurs.Given the prior playoff failures of Harden and Paul, though, there is an “I’ll believe it when I see it” quality to Houston’s candidacy; it’ll be up to them to make good on the promise of this regular-season rampage come April, May and June.
While we wait, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got, and I, for one, love Harden saying it’s the Rockets’ time, love the Warriors basically smirking at it all, and love that we’re only a couple of months away from getting the chance to roll the ball out and actually figure it all out.
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