Published On: Mon, Mar 12th, 2018

Why not Houston? The Rockets are built to hang with the Warriors and win

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It’s a testament to Golden State‘s dominance that a Rockets team with the league’s best record, coming off a 17-game winning streak, with two wins over the Warriors already under their belt, isn’t universally accepted as a true title contender, but a once in a lifetime collection of talent like the Warriors’ comes with an air of invincibility.

Except, what if this Houston team is once in a lifetime in its own right – the perfectly concocted roster for the modern game, with enough star power, depth, shooting variance, and defensive versatility to hang with the mighty Warriors in a seven-game, two-week slugfest?

It’s worth considering.

The MVP and the Point God

It begins and ends with James Harden and Chris Paul, a surefire MVP and a Hall of Fame point guard who blend the perfect combination of scoring, playmaking, and shooting from a star duo.

Surround them with shooters like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, among others, and a rim-running center like Clint Capela – in a Mike D’Antoni system, no less – and you get the most efficient offense of all time (according to Basketball-Reference).

“A lot of guys in our league can probably attest to worrying about, if you take this shot, you might come out of the game, or just having a teammate who’s going to look at you sideways, or all that stuff. But with our team, the spirit, we hoop,” Paul said of playing in D’Antoni’s free-flowing system before Friday’s loss in Toronto. “It sounds like a simple quote, but we just play.”

When the Rockets traded for Paul last summer, many wondered how he and Harden would co-exist offensively. Those concerns seem foolish in retrospect. Paul’s thrived playing off the ball more than ever before, while Harden’s been further unleashed rather than stymied by Paul’s presence, averaging a league-leading 31.1 points per game to go along with 8.9 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.9 steals. He’s also achieved the rare feat of upping his usage and efficiency.

“The thing that people don’t get a chance to see is how much he loves to hoop,” Paul said of Harden. “There are some guys that are just talented, you know what I mean? But there’s a reason why he’s as good as he is. He works at it. The shots that he’s shooting, stepbacks, we expect to go in. Somebody else might think it’s a tough shot. Another thing – when he goes to the (free-throw) line, people get mad about it, but that’s a real skill,” Paul stressed: “Like, I can’t do that.”

Harden’s nightly parade to the free-throw line and his uncanny ability to create separation, plus Paul’s ball-handling wizardry, are a big reason why the Rockets remain frighteningly efficient even in isolation – an offense they defer to more often than any other team (14.2% of play types).

That reliance on one-on-one play, despite its promising returns, is often cited as a flaw to be exploited come playoff time, though not the team’s biggest setback. That label is reserved for the ridiculous notion Paul and Harden are postseason no-shows who shrink in the spotlight.

Sure, both have dealt with some nightmarish playoff meltdowns, but if the duo’s postseason resumes are considered those of failures, then what in God’s name constitutes a playoff performer?

Harden has averaged roughly 27 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and two steals in the postseason as a Rocket, and posted an absurd 49-61-81 shooting line to spark Oklahoma City’s Western Conference finals comeback against the Spurs in 2012.

Paul’s averaged 21.4 points, 9.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.2 steals on a true shooting percentage of 58.5 in 76 career playoff games, and he ranks fourth in postseason PER among the 269 players who’ve suited up for at least 75 playoff games. He also eliminated the defending champion Spurs with a series-winning bucket in 2015.

If there are any cliche intangible to harp on when it comes to Houston’s two stars heading into the playoffs, it’s desire, not despair.

“There are a lot of gritty guys on this team and a lot of hungry guys,” said veteran swingman Joe Johnson, who signed with the Rockets last month after being traded by the Jazz and waived by the Kings. “But I know CP and James, just them two alone, are starving for a title. I know they’re going to be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

D’Antoni, who’s come to know his fair share of postseason heartbreak between Phoenix and Houston, rolls his eyes when asked if Harden, Paul, and the Rockets need to do things differently once the playoffs roll around.

“To me, things don’t change,” D’Antoni said. “It’s more intense and you’re playing great teams. You don’t have some cupcakes that come in. You’re playing the best teams every night in a series. It’s just harder, but it doesn’t slow down, or do this (or that).

“You’re just playing against teams that get back better, so now it takes a little longer to get your shot, or you don’t find your shot on the first action. But other than that, we’re going to do the same thing that we’ve done all year, just hopefully at a higher level than anybody else. If we do that, then we’ll win. If not, then you don’t.”

For what it’s worth, while the team has logged the second-least amount of clutch minutes (within five points in the final five minutes) this season, Houston’s a league-best plus-22.2 per 100 possessions in those situations – more than five points better than second-ranked Indiana, and nearly eight points better than Golden State.

A modern D to match modern O

For as much attention as Harden, Paul, D’Antoni, and the Rockets’ historic offense gets, it’s the team’s more modern – and more effective – defense that could change the game this spring.

“That’s the underrated part of our game,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza told theScore. “Nobody really likes to talk about us (defensive players), because our offense is so dominant.”

Between Ariza and offseason acquisitions P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, the Rockets now have an abundance of one of the most precious commodities in modern defenses – versatile combo forwards who can switch across a number of defensive assignments, not just within a game, but within a single possession.

“We like to think we’re a little bit like Golden State – we switch (on screens) a lot,” D’Antoni said. “You have to have the personnel (to switch), and we do. There’s a lot of things offensively you just can’t guard traditionally, and we think some of the switching helps that.”

It’s not just the forwards, either.

Capela’s mobility for a big man allows him to hang with guards on the perimeter, while the surprising strength of Paul and even Harden, a notoriously poor defender, sees them hold their own against bigger bodies in the post more often than they’re given credit for.

“Obviously adding Chris offensively helps, but the way we’re able to guard throughout an entire game has helped us,” Harden explained when asked what makes this year’s Rockets so different.

To Harden’s point, Houston owns a top 10 defense with a month remaining in the season, after finishing 18th and 21st, respectively, on that end of the floor over the last two years.

Even with the best defense of his coaching career at his disposal, however, D’Antoni remains convinced offensive talent wins out more often than not.

“There’s nothing you can do about it. Sorry,” D’Antoni quipped when asked how defenses have evolved to combat the offensive revolution he’s spearheaded over the last 15 years.

“You can try whatever you wanna do, it ain’t gonna work. The players are too good.”

If that’s the case, the Rockets will still need their fair share of luck in a potential Western Conference finals showdown against the Warriors, who’ve accumulated more offensive talent than perhaps any team in history, leaving them a larger margin for error. And it’s that line of thinking that leaves you wondering whether the Rockets can actually beat the Warriors at their own game four times in seven tries, or whether Houston is merely the best equipped to take advantage of an unlikely Warriors’ misstep.

“People really don’t think that we can beat Golden State (in the playoffs),” Capela told theScore. “So right now, all we can do is just go out there every single night and go get those wins. And when the time comes, against Golden State, we will prove them wrong.”

(Photos courtesy Getty Images)

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