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NBA PM: Don’t Sleep On Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Meet Orlando Magic rookie Elfrid Payton, the pest that opposing point guards hate to play against.

Alex Kennedy

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Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders and Brian Clark of CineSport discuss how the surging Hawks resemble the Spurs, and why Atlanta may continue to improve as the season continues.

Don’t Sleep On Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Dwight Howard may not know Elfrid Payton’s name, but he knows he’s damn good.

After the Houston Rockets’ Wednesday loss to the Magic – in which Payton had 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals while pushing the ball at a breakneck pace that led to Orlando scoring 120 points – Howard acknowledged that Payton was the Magic’s motor and played a huge role in the victory on both ends of the court.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Phoenix Suns“I just think it started with their point guard – the guy with the crazy hair,” Howard said. “He’s the one that started everything. He was all over us on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he pushed the pace and just made things happen. We couldn’t stop them from pushing the ball down the floor, and every time they did that they got easy buckets.”

Howard and the Rockets aren’t the first team to struggle against “the guy with the crazy hair.” Last Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers were beating up on the Magic late in the first quarter, and Payton had seen enough. The Magic couldn’t score (finishing with just 13 points in the opening quarter) or slow down the Blazers at all. Payton was upset, and he decided to take out his frustration on Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard.

The 20-year-old rookie started to fullcourt-press Lillard, disrupting the flow of Portland’s possessions. Then, on offense, he decided to push the pace and get Orlando some easy buckets in transition that gradually cut into the deficit. Before long, the Magic were back in the game and had a shot to win it near the end, only to lose by single digits.

Since that close loss to Portland, Orlando has continued to follow Payton’s lead – pressing and playing at a much faster pace. They have won consecutive games against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, scoring 121 points and 120 points, respectively. This would be an impressive feat for any team considering those are two very good defenses, but it’s an even bigger deal for the Magic since they ranked second-to-last in points per 100 possessions prior to the two wins and had struggled offensively for much of the year. Just four games ago, they scored only 84 points in a loss to the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.

But now, things seem like they’re improving and the Magic players point to Payton for the turnaround and change in approach.

“Without a doubt, [Elfrid] is the key,” Magic power forward Channing Frye said. “You see him picking up guys fullcourt for 48 minutes. It’s unbelievable. I hope he stays consistent with that, because we need it. I think his defense is infectious. … In Portland, when he was picking up Lillard fullcourt, that got everyone hyped. I told him, ‘Hey, as fast as you want to run, I’m cool with that. I can run as fast as you want to run; I can do this all day.’ We started getting the ball out faster, getting down the court faster and you started to see guys getting easy lay-ups and easy shots.”

“I was just trying to change something,” Payton said of his adjustment. “We had been losing and you obviously can’t go into games doing the same thing and expecting different results. Picking up the ball and picking up the pace were some things that I thought could help us. All of the guys on the team thought it would be a good idea, and we’ve had some success. We have a lot of guys on this team with talent, who can put the ball in the hole. They just have to be put in the right position and if that’s by pushing the pace, that’s what we need to do.”

On offense, Payton is a traditional, pass-first point guard who sets up his teammates for easy opportunities. Until recently, Orlando was primarily running a halfcourt offense (ranking 22nd in the NBA in pace). But lately, Payton and his teammates decided to run more in order to play to the strength of their personnel. In transition, Payton throws some beautiful passes that are insanely accurate and lead to easy points. Some teammates have even said that Payton will realize they’re open before they do themselves. A big area of improvement for Payton recently has been limiting his turnovers, which has made the up-tempo approach more successful.

Running an up-tempo offense is tiring. Running an up-tempo offense and then fullcourt pressing is exhausting. But Payton seems to have a never-ending supply of energy, flying around the floor and making plays everywhere. It’s no surprise that opposing point guards hate playing against him.

Payton loves that reputation, as he takes pride in being one of the most annoying pests in the NBA. On defense, Payton will make the opposition work for everything by swarming the ball, denying the inbounds pass after makes and being extremely physical.

Playing intimidating defense is in his genes as his father Elfrid Payton, Sr. was a star defensive end in the Canadian Football League, playing from 1991 to 2004 and making seven All-Star appearances throughout his career. He was a two-time Grey Cup champion and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Payton, like his father, relies on his toughness and physicality to wear opponents down throughout a game.

“I love it,” Payton said of harassing point guards. “It helps me get into my rhythm and I think it helps my teammates get into a defensive mindset. When I’m getting my hand on the ball, it makes things easier for them so that’s definitely something that I focus on. It’s one of those things that I can do that helps the whole team.”

Fellow guard Victor Oladipo, who also likes to pester on defense and push the ball, loves playing alongside Payton. Without any prompting, he singled out Payton as the main reason for the Magic’s recent success.

“I credit the young fella; I don’t know about anybody else, but I credit Elfrid,” Oladipo said. “He sets the tone. He’s pushing the ball and getting us going. It’s all him. He’s pressuring the ball and pushing the ball, and he makes me want to do it even more because you know I can’t let him get more steals than me (smiles). So then I go out and pressure too. He just makes everybody else play the same way, so credit him for setting the tone.”

Upon hearing Oladipo’s praise, an embarrassed Payton looked away and downplayed his individual involvement. While that’s just Payton being Payton, it’s clear that the team believes his leadership and play have been the source of this turnaround. It’s rare for a 20-year-old rookie to step into that kind of role and win over a locker room (especially one with experienced veterans), but that’s exactly what Payton has done.

“It makes me feel good to hear that, but I’m just a piece,” Payton said, deflecting the attention. “I’m just a piece and I’m just trying to go out there and do my job. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help the team, so if that means getting a steal and kicking it ahead to my teammates, that’s what I’m going to do.

“[Hearing them say that] does a lot for my confidence, though, because it shows that my teammates trust me and like to play with me. And that’s all I want, to make my teammates better and help them.”

In Payton and Oladipo, the Magic have one of the more intriguing up-and-coming backcourts in the league. The Golden State Warriors have the NBA’s best shooting backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Chicago Bulls arguably have the league’s most athletic guard duo with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. This Magic backcourt may develop into the league’s best defensive backcourt and certainly one of the most annoying for opposing guards. Payton seems confident that he and Oladipo will be an elite tandem once they realize their full potential in several years.

“We most definitely [want to be the NBA’s best defensive backcourt],” Payton said. “It starts with defense, but we feel like we can get there offensively too. We want to be the best backcourt, period. That’s the goal and that’s what we’re working for. Obviously that’s something for down the line, but that’s what we’re working for… I think this could be the start of something. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we’ve had our struggles – and I think we’ll have even more struggles – but I think if we continue to make progress each and every day, we will be in a good position when all is said and done.”

“I’m looking forward to growing with him,” Oladipo added. “There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs, but we just have to keep lifting each other up, keep believing in each other and keep having each other’s back – on and off the court.”

Payton and Oladipo combined to put the dagger in the Rockets in the final minute of Wednesday’s win, when Payton got a steal and immediately flipped the ball down the court to Oladipo, who threw down a 360 dunk to seal the win.

They are often on the same page, and they believe part of the reason for this is because they spend a significant amount of time together off the court as well. They have developed a friendship, helped by the fact that they’re a little over a year apart in age and are going through many of the same things in life. They believe this bond has helped their chemistry and on-court production.

“We hang out a lot, talk a lot of basketball and watch a little bit of film [together],” Payton said of he and Oladipo. “We’re always talking and building that chemistry. When you like somebody, it’s easy to play with them. I think that’s important. Being friends off the court makes things so much easier on the court.”

It’s clear that Payton is getting more comfortable and confident with each game. He has appeared in all 42 of Orlando’s contests this season and has started in 23. Playing big minutes and being able to work through his mistakes has been excellent on-the-job training for him. On some teams, particularly a contender, Payton might have been buried on the depth chart. But that’s not the case in Orlando, where the team is currently 15-27 and seemingly focused on developing its young core.

“My confidence is coming from experience, just being out there, making mistakes and growing from them,” Payton said. “My confidence is definitely growing. I’m just staying humble though and trying to continue to do what I do for this team, which is trying to get guys easy shots and helping defensively.”

Despite being a top-10 pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft, Payton is far from a household name at this point. In fact, there are probably many people who have never seen him play since he gets little national exposure on the Magic, and he played collegiately at Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference. He’s also not a self-promoter, which is another reason he tends to fly under the radar. He’s a quiet guy who rarely shows emotion on the floor. He doesn’t score many points or fill the highlight reel, so many casual fans likely have no idea what he does well. But take an evening to watch him play and witness the enormous impact he has on the game with his defense, playmaking, leadership, intensity and drives. Pay attention to all of the plays he affects (and try not to get distracted by his hair).

He runs the Magic like a veteran floor general at times, which isn’t a surprise since he has always been mature beyond his years. Growing up in Louisiana, he played football, basketball, baseball, soccer and ran track, and his father says he typically competed against children two years older than him for the challenge. Initially, Payton wanted to be a professional football player like his father (hence the physicality). He would watch a video of his father’s sack highlights and pick up pointers from his dad. However, he shifted his focus to basketball full time in seventh grade when Hurricane Katrina hit, disbanded his football team and forced the Payton family to relocate Dallas for several months.

A three-year run at Louisiana-Lafayette culminated in him averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals while leading the program to the NCAA Tournament. He decided to enter the draft following that successful campaign, but immediately there were questions about whether he could fare as well against tougher competition.

He entered the NBA pre-draft process projected as an early second-round pick for this reason, but quickly erased any doubt that he’d struggle against NBA-caliber athletes. He dominated individual workouts, sometimes flat out embarrassing the other top point guard prospects he faced off against by locking them down and not letting them score. At 6’4 (with a 6’8 wingspan), a large frame and his impressive toughness, he was a nightmare match-up for many point guards.

He climbed draft boards and ultimately was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers (because they knew how badly the Magic wanted him at No. 12). To land Payton, Orlando gave up the draft rights to Dario Saric, a 2015 second-round pick and allowed Philadelphia to take back the future first-round pick the 76ers had dealt to the Magic from the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade in August of 2012.

The Magic – who have been collecting high-energy, defensive-oriented prospects in recent years – fell in love with Payton during the pre-draft process and believed he could be their point guard of the future. They also liked the idea of pairing Payton with Aaron Gordon, their No. 4 overall selection, since the two had played together for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Championship and reportedly dominated when put on the same team in a number of pre-draft workouts.

This season, Payton has rewarded Orlando’s faith in him by becoming one of the most productive rookies in this class. Injuries have really limited this year’s NBA freshman (with Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker, Los Angeles’ Julius Randle and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid among others sidelined), but Payton still deserves credit for shining among his peers. Despite the hype for Boston’s Marcus Smart, Utah’s Dante Exum and Miami’s Shabazz Napier entering the season, Payton has been the best first-year floor general of the group. He leads all rookies in assists per game (5.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.35), assist ratio (33.7 percent) and steals (59), while ranking fourth in double-doubles and eighth in scoring.

Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins seems like the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, with Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic deserving consideration as well, but Payton’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. He likely won’t get the credit he deserves from voters since he’s not scoring the ball (and defense is often overlooked with these awards), but it’s possible that Payton could emerge as one of the better players from this class down the road.

His chances of doing so will greatly improve if he can fix his shot, which is by far his biggest weakness. He’s not a capable shooter right now, so his scoring opportunities are limited to plays at the basket and teams can back off of him without worrying that he’ll knock down a jumper. He’s also a poor free throw shooter, hitting just 53.1 percent from the charity stripe.

However, he’s such a good defender and facilitator that he’s playing nearly 30 minutes a night despite these weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses have earned him comparisons to Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo, whom he studies often. Keep in mind, Payton is still just 20 years old, so he’s nowhere near reaching his ceiling and he still has plenty of time to fix the holes in his game. He’s someone who has displayed an above-average work ethic, so it won’t be a surprise to see him report to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas (where he does his training) shortly after the season ends to continue his development.

Payton has all of the tools to be a very special player who could stick around the NBA for many years. It’s only a matter of time until the NBA’s elite are looking past his unique hair and describing him as “the guy with the crazy talent.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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