In case you haven’t noticed, the Houston Rockets have been balling lately. They have won six games in a row, including a victory over the Golden State Warriors sans James Harden and big road wins over the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.
Suddenly, the Rockets are 39-25 on the season and are climbing in the Western Conference standings. The question is, does this Houston team have a legitimate chance of winning the championship this year?
Earlier in the season, the Rockets went on a run where Harden was simply playing out of his mind, burning teams for 40-50 points nightly and essentially doing everything for Houston offensively. That came without Chris Paul, who was out with a hamstring injury.
Now, Paul is back, and he has been brilliant. His return has alleviated some of the pressure on Harden to run everything offensively, and when Paul registers 10 or more assists, the Rockets are 28-1.
That is a heck of a statistic and demonstrates just how important CP3 is to Houston’s success. But will this style of play translate in the playoffs?
Here is the problem for the Rockets: their strategy is not all that different from last season. It’s basically having Harden light up the opposing defense while hoping the rest of the guys can bomb away from three-point range.
That will work in arbitrary regular-season games, but in a seven-game playoff series, it becomes a heck of a lot more difficult to execute.
The Rockets have employed this strategy for several years running now, and while it has gotten them as far as the Western Conference Finals, it hasn’t gotten them over the hump. That hump, of course, is the Golden State Warriors.
In each of Houston’s last two Western Conference Finals appearances (2015 and 2018), it has fallen to the Warriors. Now, obviously, you can put a bit of an asterisk on last year’s loss, as Paul got hurt after the Rockets built a 3-2 lead and missed Games 6 and 7, but there is no guarantee that a healthy Paul would have allowed Houston to beat Golden State.
Plus, this season, the Rockets are not as good as they were a year ago when they won 65 games while the Warriors seem to be the same exact team (regardless of what spin fans or the media want to put on it), so it seems hard to imagine Houston beating Golden State this postseason.
As a matter of fact, it’s debatable whether or not the Rockets are even the Warriors’ biggest threat in the West, as the Oklahoma City Thunder have the length and the athleticism to actually give them somewhat of a hard time.
In reality, there is no real “threat” to Golden State in the Western Conference, as the Warriors are clearly the best team, but if anyone has a shot, it seems to be the Thunder.
I’m not sure Houston presents that same challenge.
The only chance the Rockets have is if they get red-hot from downtown four times over the course of seven games, and even then, they would be banking on the Warriors’ all-time great shooters going cold.
That doesn’t seem all that likely, but the Rockets have different play styles that can contend with the Warriors. When the offense flows properly through Harden, they are unguardable. When it goes through Paul, they’re nearly unbeatable as mentioned above.
Houston is still a third star away from being a true title contender. Harden and Paul are obviously great and Clint Capela is a really good complementary player, but the Rockets need a third guy. They don’t have that.
The Warriors? They have five, assuming DeMarcus Cousins can keep his head on straight (which is another story).
So, basically, Harden is going to need to go Super Saiyan in addition to guys like Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Iman Shumpert lighting it up from long range for an entire series.
And even then, the Rockets still probably wouldn’t have enough to topple the Dubs.
This isn’t to take anything away from Houston. The Rockets have certainly been impressive for stretches this season, but one cannot deny that they have been very inconsistent, which is typical for a team that relies so heavily on one player and the three-point shot to succeed.
Houston can make life for opposing defenses absolutely miserable, or it can make things pretty easy if it keeps clanking triples, the latter of which is what the Rockets did in Game 7 against the Warriors last year.
The fact of the matter is that the is a very flawed basketball team that is far too dependent on too many things going exactly right and will crumple if anything goes wrong or any other variables get in the way.
The Rockets are good and they are certainly interesting, but they are still a player away from being true title contenders.