LOS ANGELES — With the clock ticking down in the third quarter and fans on their feet, Chris Paul found himself isolated one-on-one in the corner. After a slow start, Paul had hit a trio of 3-pointers in rapid succession, forcing defenders to guard more closely than they had in the first half. Paul crossed. He went between his legs. The oohs and aahs came, but the blow-by move didn’t, and Paul was trapped. Momentarily, he was stymied. But a moment later, he fired a pinpoint backdoor pass to James Harden. Harden finished easily at the rim, and their team, LA United, entered the fourth up 13.
It wasn’t the most exciting play from the Drew League on Saturday. Far from it, in fact. It didn’t feature a high-flying finish, ankle-breaking move or a three right in a defenders’ grill. Rather, it showed a small glimpse of what Paul and Harden — two of the game’s best creators — can do together on the court.
It’s hard to take much away from a Drew League game. It’s glorified pickup. There are no offensive sets or formalized rosters. And neither Paul nor Harden is near the form they will be in a few months. That’s to be expected in a mid-offseason game.
Still, the game provided glimpses of what the duo can do while on the hardwood together, which is the major question facing the Houston Rockets. Harden took a significant leap last season in his new role as the team’s primary ball-handler. Paul, meanwhile, has been a premier point guard in the league for the past decade, and he’s never played off-ball. On Saturday, they split time bringing it up the floor.
When Paul brought the ball up, Harden played off-ball as a wing, much like he had for his entire career prior to 2016. When Harden served as the lead guard, Paul sometimes positioned himself on the wing, but more often he went to the mid-post. Paul has shot more than 42 percent of his career shots from between 10 feet and the 3-point arc, and he’s shot better than 46 percent from that area.
With his deep ball off early, Paul often resorted to getting the ball in the mid-post and shooting over his defender. Obviously, Paul won’t play in the post during the NBA season, but getting him touches in his best area — the mid-range — is a luxury the Rockets will have when Harden brings the ball up.
Overall, there wasn’t a ton to take away offensively. They played without a true big man, which has been a key part of both players’ games. On Saturday, their main big was top 2018 recruit Marvin Bagley, an 18-year-old point-forward in the making. In Houston, they will have athletic big Clint Capela in the pick-and-roll and knockdown shooter Ryan Anderson in the pick-and-pop. With several other shooters in tow, those two All-Star ball-handlers will have another layer to their offense in Houston.
Remember, the Rockets were destroyed in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals this past season because the Spurs dared them to shoot from the mid-range, Harden struggled and the team had no other player capable of facilitating at his level. With Paul, the team now has an answer.
There were moments in the Drew League when you saw what Houston’s star duo is capable of — the ability to score both one-on-one (the most common attack at the Drew) and when sharing the ball. There were moments of brilliance and, as one would expect at a mid-summer organized pickup game, several head-scratchers. With the talent Houston has added to its backcourt, though, it seems only a matter of time and refinement before the Rockets become an even more versatile offensive power than they were last season, when their 111.8 points per possession ranked among the NBA’s best ever.