In a flash, the Rockets went from riding an eight-game winning streak to suffering back-to-back losses against a pair of title contenders, results that have once again left some questioning how effective Houston can perform if All-NBA guard James Harden is in any way neutralized.
The Rockets, set to host the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday at Toyota Center, were left prone last Wednesday when the Denver Nuggets worked diligently to make someone other than Harden beat them. They succeeded at that gambit. Harden had 37 points and 12 assists Friday against the Clippers, but in the waning moments, Los Angeles forced one of his teammates to take the decisive shot and Russell Westbrook clanked a 3-pointer in a 122-119 loss.
Against the elite teams of the NBA, this will become protocol. How the Rockets adjust will come to define their season.
"The whole season they've been running double teams at me," Harden said. "I've never seen that in an NBA game where you've got really good defenders and other guys just running a person at the top of the key. Y'all let me know when was the last time y'all have seen that."
The Mavericks extended their winning streak to four games by completing a 4-0 homestand with a 143-101 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. It marked a second consecutive 40-plus-point win for Dallas and was another example of the Mavericks' burgeoning momentum.
"It was a successful homestand," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "We've done some good things but the schedule is going to get a lot more difficult now."
Starting with the Rockets, Dallas will in succession face four teams off to strong starts this season, three on the road. The Mavericks haven't played a stretch this difficult yet, and what lies ahead will serve as another measuring stick for a roster that is meshing at an exceptional pace.
Forward Luca Doncic is central to Dallas' ascent, averaging 33.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 11.0 assists during the winning streak to boost his season averages to near triple-double heights. While Doncic playing at this level is mildly surprising, his continued growth was anticipated.
Kristaps Porzingis' return from knee surgery has provided the Mavericks the boost to shoot up the Western Conference standings. Porzingis is averaging 18.1 points and 8.9 rebounds through 14 games and has offered the defensive impact that bolstered his two-way reputation.
"I really love the way he plays both ends, but defensively, he's a great pick-and-roll defender, he's a presence at the rim, he's a great rebounder and great outlet passer," Carlisle said. "Those are parts of his game that get overlooked because of his ability to score."
But there is a reason Doncic has been so ballyhooed. His start to this season has been otherworldly, and while Dallas has thrived as a collective, Doncic has settled in as the fulcrum for everything that makes the Mavericks successful. Dallas' development is linked to his.
"It's special. It's consistent and special and I think he can keep going," Mavericks guard J.J. Barea said. "We need him to keep this going and ... it's going to help us get more wins."
--Field Level Media