Don’t look now but the Houston Rockets are near the top of the Western Conference standings again.
Coach Mike D’Antoni’s boys have endured some of the worst adversities a title contender has ever gone through and they have (hopefully) survived the worst of it.
From being near the bottom of the NBA standings, the Rockets are in third place in the west and only five games behind the Golden State Warriors with a 41-25 record.
Houston is on a season-high 8-game winning streak which propelled them to their much-improved standing among the elite in the conference. Prior to the return of All-Star point guard Chris Paul and center Clint Capella, it was nearly impossible to consider them as threats to the Warriors’ chances of winning a third straight championship.
At the center of the Rockets’ own title aspirations is reigning Most Valuable Player James Harden whose historic offensive exploits have once again made him the top choice for MVP honors this season.
As good as he was last season, Harden has elevated his play to another level. His 36.3 points per game is the highest scoring average by a player since Michael Jordan dropped 37.1 points a night in the 1986-87 season. Something tells me that the Beard will be more than ready for the Warriors come playoff time.
With this being the Rockets healthiest all season, it’s no surprise that they look like title contenders once again.
Here are three good reasons why the Rockets are one of the biggest threats to dethrone the Warriors:
3. Key Acquisitions
The Rockets are a much different team from last season which is why it took them a while before they got their act together.
But once they acquired the necessary pieces and had all their key personnel healthy and playing at the same time, they started winning again.
Gone are Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Joe Johnson from last year’s team. In their place are Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert, Gary Clark and Kenneth Faried.
If you ask me, I think the Rockets have a better team than the one they fielded to the west finals in last season’s playoffs.
All four new guys are excellent defenders and they can provide supplementary scoring as necessary as well. Houston is more equipped to stall the Warriors’ vaunted offense than ever and they should get better as the regular season draws to a close.
The All-Star break was exactly what D’Antoni needed to get everyone acclimated and comfortable in their new environment. As soon as they did, the Rockets took off and have hardly looked back.
This team is built like it can finish the job it started a year ago and finally take home the trophy.
2. Improved Defense
The Rockets had been near the bottom of the league in defense for much of the season and that would have spelled disaster for them when they faced the Warriors two weeks ago.
Instead, it was Golden State who was in trouble from the start. Playing with a handicap as Harden was sidelined with an injury, the Rockets reeled off 15 straight points before their opponent broke the run with a three-pointer.
Their much-improved defense held the defending champs to 46.7 percent field goal shooting and kept the league’s highest scoring team (118.3 points per game) to six points below their season average. And they did this in Oracle Arena, too.
It was the mark of team defense and the win catapulted the Rockets to their current win streak.
“It’s better. I hope,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni of their defense said a few days ago via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “We’ll keep working at it. They know what we have to do to win – to get in the mix of winning a title and we have to play great defense, (and) we have to rebound. They want to win a title and they want to compete at least for a title, and they know what they have to do. I’d say most nights they’ve been doing it here lately.”
Doing it is right. Before the winning streak started, the Rockets were 25th in the league in defense. Since then, they’re sixth overall in defensive rating, better than other title contenders such as the Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks and, yes, even the three-peat seeking Warriors.
Not only do the Rockets have the right personnel, but they are also peaking at the right time and it started with their defense.
1. Chris Paul’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise
The injury bug hit the Rockets early and the biggest one they had to overcome was the strained left hamstring that sidelined Chris Paul last December.
In last year’s playoffs, he missed the latter part of Game 5 as well as the last two games of the Western Conference Finals with a right hamstring injury.
If not for the injury, it’s almost a given that Houston would have represented the west in the 2018 Finals after leading the series 3-2 heading into Game 6.
Paul has a history with getting hurt at the most inappropriate times particularly during the playoffs when his teams need him the most. The fact that his injury occurred earlier this season suggests that he would be at peak health as the postseason nears and he should be healthier when the stakes are highest. The timing of his injury couldn’t have come at a better time.
One of the greatest point guards in league history, the 33-year old playmaker continues to be a game changer for the Rockets. His presence has alleviated the ballhandling duties from Harden and his leadership on the floor cannot be overstated.
If they should face the Warriors in another 7-game series, Paul should be in better shape than last year. He may not be as spry as he once was now that he’s 33, but he is still one of the best defenders and ballhawks at the position, averaging 2.0 steals a game.
Say what you will about his reliability (health wise and otherwise) in the playoffs but when you’re going to a war against the defending champs, you would want him on your side rather than against him.