When Chris Paul wakes up on Christmas morning, odds are there will be some interesting gadgets under his tree waiting for him.
His real gift, however, won’t come until about 8:00pm ET, when his Houston Rockets will take their talents to Oklahoma City to do battle with Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.
Of all reasons Paul has to be merry, the Rockets are tops. The team has unexpectedly risen toward the top of the Western Conference and only recently yielded the best record in the league to the mighty Golden State Warriors.
What’s even scarier? The team isn’t a finished product.
Still, by virtue of their dominance of the league through the Christmas holiday, the question at least needs to be asked: how far are the Rockets away from winning the entire thing?
And was it wise of general manager Daryl Money to let it be known that the team is looking past the other teams in the conference and predicting that his Rockets will end up pitted against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals?
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Entering play on December 24, the Rockets rank first in the NBA in offensive efficiency and second in points per game. Although the San Antonio Spurs are deemed by many to still be one of the top teams in the conference, the general consensus, at least at this point, seems to be that the addition of Chris Paul should give the Rockets an additional weapon that can both change the pace of the game and lessen the extent to which Gregg Popovich would be able to predict the types of things that would be thrown at him. And if it seems presumptuous to consider what the Rockets would look like against the Spurs in a playoff series, if the playoffs began today and the seeds held, the Rockets and Spurs would do battle in the second round of the playoffs—just like they did last season.
In many ways, it’s easy to overlook the Spurs. They’ve had injury issues to a large number of their core players and simply haven’t seemed to have kept up with the splashier and sexier moves made by scores of other teams in the Western Conference. The Rockets added one of the best point guards to ever play the game. The Oklahoma City Thunder added two perennial All-Stars, the Minnesota Timberwolves got their hands on Jimmy Butler and even the Warriors managed to add tremendous pieces in Nick Young, Omri Casspi and standout rookie Jordan Bell.
The Spurs, on the other hand, signed Rudy Gay, whose perceived value was shot when he tore his Achilles tendon. They also lost Jonathan Simmons, a player whose value was never more apparent than it was when the lights were shining brightest during last season’s playoffs.
Despite it all, though, Morey didn’t sound overly concerned with the Spurs when he broached the topic on Thursday. Morey joined ESPN Radio’s The Ryen Russillo Show to discuss the impressive Rockets.
“It’s the only thing we think about,” Morey said about competing with the Warriors.
“I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with, ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”
While Morey did bestow some respect on the Spurs by acknowledging the Popovich’s team was the one that ended their run last season, Morey quickly pivoted back to the Warriors after giving the Spurs what amounts to an honorable mention.
“Last year, the Spurs knocked us off, so we’re very worried about the Spurs. They’re always one step ahead of every organization and guard us better than anyone. But we calculated it — it’s like 90 percent if we’re gonna win a title, we’ve gotta obviously beat the Warriors at some point. So we’re extremely focused on that. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that.”
While it is understandable to assume that the things that the Rockets would need to beat the Warriors would help them in a playoff series against the Spurs, the fact that Money let is be known that his team is already obsessed with a potential playoff series against the Warriors is bulletin board material for every other team in the Western Conference, especially the Spurs—the team that knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs last season.
“I don’t know why you’d do anything else,” Morey said of his obsession with the Warriors.
“Like, what is the point of this league except winning a title? So we’d love to get the 1-seed, we’d love to win more games than any in Rockets history, which is 58. Those are all nice things, but frankly, we spend most of our time just figuring out how we might just knock the Warriors out in seven games. Because we’re pretty sure that’s what’s going to define our season.”
How would reading that make you feel if you were Gregg Popovich or Kawhi Leonard?
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Aside from the seeming lack of respect paid to the Spurs by Morey, the other thing to take away from the interview is simply questioning whether or not Morey is making a good assumption that his team’s season will ultimately be defined by whether or not they are able to defeat the Warriors.
One thing that needs to be said about the Rockets is that the team is as real as they come. Compared to last season, when the Rockets ranked 18th in defensive efficiency, entering play on December 24, this season, they rank ninth. Last season, when they were largely a one-man show that relied on James Harden to handle the ball on every possession, the addition of Paul gives the team another legitimate playmaker to spell Harden and allow him to play off the ball more often.
Still, the Rockets were already a potent offensive team last season, the improvement they made on the defensive side of the ball, though, should at least be credited to the team’s acquiring of PJ. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute—two of the better front court defenders available on the market this past summer. While the Rockets will certainly have their hands full with containing explosive backcourts, if the team is able to continue to play ferocious defense on opposing front courts, they should continue to have an opportunity to win every single night.
At the end of the day, though, the Spurs are the Spurs because they have traditionally managed to pull off the improbable. The Rockets looking past them might not be wise, but it certainly is understandable—the team is that good.
The last time the Spurs lost in the first round of the playoffs was back in 2015. It took seven games and a heroic shot in the waning moments of the decisive game to seal their fate.
The man responsible for it? None other than Chris Paul.
Finally, after two years of heartbreak and falling short, when Paul wakes up on Christmas morning, he’ll realize that he’s playing on Christmas Day with a team, for a change, that’s considered to be the only peer of the Warriors.
True or not, even if Morey made a mistake in publicly declaring that the Rockets believe that be true, it’s easy to understand why.
It’s difficult to imagine any better gift for Paul to have on Christmas—a team that’s expected to truly compete for it all.
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