Are the Houston Rockets better than they were a season ago?
That's one of the bigger picture questions looming as they put their nine-game win streak on the line at home against the Golden State Warriors in what promises to be a playoff-like atmosphere in front of their home crowd.
Given the manner in which this season has played out, it's somewhat remarkable to see the Rockets suddenly standing as once again perhaps the West's best chance of ending Golden State's grip on conference superiority.
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Following a loss to the Mavericks in early December - a game in which they led by eight with under three minutes remaining - the Rockets were in 14th place in the West. Chris Paul appeared to have lost a step, Eric Gordon couldn't buy a bucket and Houston's stable of 3-and-D wings looked toothless, unable to make up for the offseason departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Instead of re-fueling for another run towards contention, the Rockets' failure to launch had them teetering on the cusp of a lost season.
Then it started clicking.
Since that point in time, the Rockets are 31-11 which is the best record in the Western Conference. Suddenly, they're a win one win away from pulling to within 2.5 games of first place. They are also in the pilot's seat for tiebreakers with both the Warriors and Nuggets, the two teams currently ahead of them. Houston has already clinched the season series with Golden State and is up 2-1 on Denver with one game left at the end of the month.
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All of that leads back to the original question: are they better than they were a season ago?
Let's run through some of the reasons.
They aren't scared of the Warriors
The temptation is to say that we already knew this after last year's Conference Finals in which they had the Warriors on the ropes. They led by 17 in Game 6 and by 15 in Game 7 despite playing without Chris Paul. Had they not missed 27 straight 3-pointers, they likely would have finished the job.
A devastating defeat would have been the final straw for many franchises. To get that close and come up short... it's a crippling blow.
So how have the Rockets responded?
With three statement wins in three games.
After pummeling the Warriors by 21 in their first meeting, James Harden made it two-for-two by going off for 44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds, including the step-back dagger to win it in overtime in a game the Rockets played without Paul.
In the third meeting, this time with no Harden, it was Paul that delivered his best game of the season while reminding the world just how capable he is of rising to the occasion in a big spot. Against a Warriors team with their entire arsenal of stars in the lineup, Paul finished with 23 points and 17 assists, completely dismantling Golden State's defence.
Regardless of what happens in the fourth and final meeting, the regular season has taught us that when it comes to the defending champs, the Rockets are still more than ready to rumble.
The Harden-CP3 Balancing Act
It seems odd to say given that James Harden won the MVP award, but at times last season it still felt as if he simply took turns with Chris Paul. It was certainly Harden's team, but whenever they shared the floor it felt like a 1A and 1B scenario for extended stretches.
Houston was at its best a season ago whenever either Harden or Paul ran the show without the other. Both combinations were better than whenever they played together.
Paul's extended absence this season led to Harden uncorking one of the most dominant stretches we've ever seen. In the 17 consecutive games he missed over December and January spanning just over a month, Harden averaged 43.6 points and 8.0 assists while taking nearly 30 shots per game.
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It was out of necessity of course, but it also led to wins and unleashed a version of Harden that in today's NBA is essentially unstoppable. I'm not sure we would have ever known Harden could reach that level had Paul not gone out.
When time rolled around for his return to the lineup, the chatter grew louder about how Harden would adjust with Paul back in the fold. We got our answer right away as Harden dropped 40 in the same game that Paul shot eight times in his first action back. The 354 minutes they've played since Paul returned to the lineup tells us all we need to know about the pecking order. There is no more of this 1A, 1B stuff.
|James Harden||Chris Paul|
Paul can still operate as the vastly overqualiied leader of the second unit, bludgeoning opposing benches whenever Harden needs a breather. That was the case last year, that's still the case this year. But the balancing act with both of them on the floor has settled, allowing Houston to proceed forward with clearly defined roles that allow Harden to be the best possible version of himself.
The supporting cast
Much of Houston's early season struggles were pinned on the loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, two long switchable wings that fit exactly what the Rockets wanted to do on either end.
Defensively, their length posed real problems for opposing teams and allowed Houston to play small, to punch up a weight class without giving up too much. At 6'8", both stretched longer than either of their primary replacements in the current rotation, the 6'4" Austin Rivers and 6'5" Iman Shumpert.
Ariza in particular was valuable as a primary defender on Kevin Durant, soaking up the vast majority of defensive possessions. The defensive dropoff is a concession, no doubt.
But it's not as important as what happens on the other end.
Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni have crafted a team and style around the guiding principle that three is greater than two. And the reality of the situation is that neither Ariza nor Mbah a Moute helped Houston offensively when it needed it the most.
Those two shot a combined 27 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason including a combined 8-40 in the Conference Finals. Mbah a Moute's offensive struggles got so bad that he didn't play in three of the final four games of the series.
Rivers and Shumpert are shooting a combined 35 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, an improvement that can mean all of the difference when playing in the margins. Throw in the potential for an expanded role for Danuel House (43 percent on catch-and-shoot threes) and it's not hard to see how Houston suddenly looks more imposing where it really counts.
In addition to the wings, it's hard to overstate the significance of Kenneth Faried who at this stage represents a significant upgrade over Nene as the primary big behind Clint Capela.
He's been nothing short of a revelation, averaging 15.0 points and 9.4 rebounds in over 27 minutes per game.
When sharing the floor with Harden, he's actually been far more productive than Capela has in the same situation. It's a massive improvement over what Houston could reasonably expect from Nene who played five minutes in Game 1 against the Warriors and did not play the rest of the series.
The revamped rotation, combined with Harden taking a leap, have this Rockets team once again looking like Golden State's biggest threat in the West and potentially a tougher one than a year ago when it gave the Warriors all they could handle.
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