Hey, remember how some of us were wondering whether bringing Chris Paul back into the mix after a month on the shelf with a left knee bruise might wind up disrupting the Houston Rockets? Yeah, so, um, about that:
The Rockets have won six straight since Paul’s return to the lineup. Their already overwhelming offense has hit a scorching new level, averaging 118.5 points per 100 possessions. Their defense has been nearly as impressive, holding opponents to a minuscule 97.2 points-per-100. Both are the best efficiency marks in the league since Nov. 15.
The much-ballyhooed backcourt of Paul and James Harden has been as advertised, outscoring opponents by 34 points in 94 minutes over the past two weeks, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data. More importantly, though, the Rockets have been kicking maximum ass when only one’s been on the floor — they’re plus-53 in 83 Harden/no-Paul minutes, and a whopping plus-42 in 50 Paul/no-Harden minutes. Turns out there might have been something to that whole “we will always have one Hall of Fame-caliber point guard on the floor” thing!
Harden is an absolute monster, leading the league in assists again while also leading the league in scoring, shooting a career-best 40.3 percent from 3-point range while taking 11.1 freaking 3s a game and still getting to the free-throw line more often than any non-big in the sport.
He’s assisting on half his teammates’ baskets during his floor time while sharply curbing last year’s turnover rate, despite throwing swaggering passes like this for fun:
James Harden, what a pass!pic.twitter.com/OKAjdaZ5MK
— Rafi Rubiano (@RafiBasketLover) November 13, 2017
— Off the Glass (@otgbasketball) November 26, 2017
Ridiculous nutmeg pass from Harden sets up the trey pic.twitter.com/HRzsLQEwGY
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) November 30, 2017
Here’s the list of players to average 30 points a game with a True Shooting percentage (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) of .600 or better while finishing more than 30 percent of their team’s offensive possessions: prime Michael Jordan, prime Karl Malone, MVP Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, and this year’s Harden. That’s it. That’s the whole list.
“Last year, I thought he was unbelievable,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said during last month’s reign of terror. “I don’t know what he is this year. He’s gone up another level.”
Paul’s not quite there yet — it takes a little bit of time to get back to full speed after spending a month in the shop with a wonky wheel — but he’s got 62 assists against just eight turnovers in 164 minutes while shooting 44.8 percent from 3-point land since returning. He’s starting to get more comfortable playing at Houston’s preferred pace, as ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe noted, marrying his dead-eye accuracy and playmaking acumen with the imperative to give up the ball and get on the move in D’Antoni’s attack.
And while some (like, um, me) thought he might’ve been targeted in part to bring his midrange mastery to a Rockets club that can sometimes struggle to wring out buckets against defenses that look to take away what Houston likes to do best, CP3 sure seems to be getting with the Moreyball program. According to NBA.com, he’s taken as many shots in the restricted area this season as he has from midrange, and nearly four times as many from beyond the arc.
“I had to perfect that midrange shot because everything was so compact,” Paul recently told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “We were great [with the Clippers]. Don’t get me wrong. I loved what we were doing. That’s the shot that was there for me a lot of times. [DeAndre Jordan] would be there. Blake [Griffin] was there. He didn’t used to shoot 3s like he has this year. They were in the lane. I had to move in the lane to get them open and sometimes I’d have the midrange shot.
“Now when I come off [the screen], it’s made it easier for me. I love what I’m seeing.”
It’s tough to blame him. Center Clint Capela seems to get better by the day, screening and diving and swatting and rebounding and perpetually inflating the size of that bag coming his way this summer. Ryan Anderson’s been a pleasant surprise defensively, and he’s been torching defenses since CP3 came back, shooting 55 percent from deep on 7.6 attempts in only 26.5 minutes per game. (I loved the explanation he offered Feigen for why he’s clicked so quickly with his new point guard: “He’s Chris Paul.”)
Defensive-minded role players Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker have been weaponized as offensive contributors, too, as knockdown floor-spacers from the corners, drivers, cutters and even as attackers in the pick-and-roll. Together with Trevor Ariza, they make up one of the league’s most versatile perimeter corps, giving Houston the flexibility to match up with all sorts of opponents.
Need to go big? Roll with Capela, Nene or Tarik Black. Need to downshift to both cover and go shot-for-shot with a small-ball lineup? Roll with the Tuckwagon in no-center or Anderson-at-five lineups, which have outscored opponents by 46 points in 86 minutes, scoring like gangbusters and clamping down like the Celtics. (They’ve been especially suffocating with all three of Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Tucker on the court, switching defensive assignments all over the court and allowing just 96.2 points-per-100 in 140 shared minutes.)
Everyone in Houston looks awesome right now. (Well, everyone except Eric Gordon, who’s been slumping. But the reigning Sixth Man of the Year has earned the benefit of the doubt in D’Antoni’s system.) The Rockets haven’t quite reached their preseason goal of averaging 50 3-pointers per game, but they’re still leading the league by a mile at 44.4 a night with 16.2 makes, while also shooting a blistering 57.3 percent on shots inside the arc; only eight teams take more shots inside the restricted area, and only three make a higher percentage. Two of those three teams have played for the NBA championship in each of the last three summers.
“I think the way we play is pretty proven,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently told Alex Wong of The Atlantic. “You already have multiple titles won by teams playing a similar style as us.”
There are caveats worth mentioning. Houston’s six-game rampage has come against four teams missing at least one top player due to injury (the Nuggets without Paul Millsap, the Grizzlies without Mike Conley, the Knicks without Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter, the Nets missing basically everybody) and five teams that rank in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency (Knicks, Pacers, Nuggets, Nets, Suns).
It’s fair to note that the Rockets have fattened up on some dinged-up and defenseless opposition, and to wonder whether things might change for them a little bit once the schedule stiffens. As the great John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes, “In December, Houston will play a league-high nine games against top-10 defenses, beginning the month with three road games against the Lakers (eighth), Jazz (seventh) and Blazers (second).” (Then again, D’Antoni’s club will also gets a season-long seven-game homestand after that.)
OK, all that said: at 17-4, the Rockets have the NBA’s second-best record, behind only a Boston Celtics team that has played three more games than Houston. They have already beaten the Warriors in their own gym. They have a legitimate MVP candidate playing the best ball of an already pretty great career, a future Hall of Famer still at the tail end of his prime running their reserves with aplomb, more wing depth than ever before and a top-five defense. This team is complete, and deep, and built for the long haul.
You can’t win a championship before December, but you can damn sure announce your presence with authority. The Rockets are here, they’re downright terrifying, and it sure doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon.
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