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Mbah A Moute Rounding Himself, Rockets

Spencer Davies has a deep conversation with Luc Mbah a Moute regarding his growth in the league, playing alongside two All-Stars, and a great first half of the season in Houston.

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It’s pre-game at Quicken Loans Arena on a Saturday night. The Houston Rockets are in town to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in a late primetime slot on national television.

Mike D’Antoni walks into the visitor’s media room and gets pelted with all kinds of questions.

Did you see Steve Kerr’s tweet?

What are your thoughts on James Harden approaching 15,000 points tonight?

Chris Paul has been great this season. How has he made it work with James?

His answers are honest and to the point. He genuinely enjoys talking about his two megastars and how they’ve made it work with each other as they continue to lead the Rockets into the elite tier of basketball teams in the NBA.

After a lengthy answer about the All-Star duo’s conversations in the summertime, Basketball Insiders goes ahead and changes the subject a little, bringing up P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to talk about their first year with the organization.

As soon as Houston’s head coach hears those names, his expression instantly changes.

“They are so important to this, it’s not even funny,” D’Antoni sternly says of Tucker and Mbah a Moute. “It’s what they can give us defensively and that’s what we were missing last year.”

“Just a tough, defensive presence. They give us that, they knock down shots, they’re great veterans and I can’t say enough about ‘em. And that’s why I don’t like accolades because we don’t do anything without those two guys.”

The Missing Piece(s)

D’Antoni is exactly right. That was the final void the Rockets needed to fill. They had the shooting. They had the scoring. They had the versatility.

But they lacked the ability to stop the opposition, so Mbah a Moute, Tucker, and Paul came aboard with a goal to change that.

“Going into the season, we were all excited about it because we looked at our roster and we looked at what this team did last year,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to come here because offensively, even in general, they looked like they were playing good basketball and everybody was having fun.

“Then you put that with some defensive guys and defensive attitude, you got a good recipe to get you a chance to win a championship. This is a team that—deeply we didn’t have that defensive mindset and that defensive skills, so I think we bring that to the table and then (for) that reason it’ll help us down the line.”

So far, so good. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Rockets are in the top 10 in defense, allowing 106.6 points per 100 possessions. With the aforementioned trio on the floor together, opponents are a net minus-26.7 points per-100-possessions in 189 minutes, as specified by NBA.com.

Furthermore, Mbah a Moute individually has been stellar. Had it not been for a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a few weeks in mid-December, he might be a real candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. When he’s playing, Houston’s defensive rating is 101.6. If he’s sitting on the bench, they give up eight points more per 100 possessions. Those figures rank him in at least the 94th percentile in both categories.

“I think, gotta be gifted naturally with my size and length,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders when asked why he’s so talented on that end. “I’m able to cover different positions ‘cause I’m tall enough to cover guys that are big and quick enough to cover smaller guys.

“Watching film, being able to do it over the years and knowing guys, knowing tendencies. (I’ve) played for coaches who’ve always appreciated defense. Just kinda all of the above of that stuff.”

Expanding His Game

Being a lockdown defender isn’t the only thing Mbah a Moute is capable of. Over the last couple of years, he’s added to his game by becoming a true threat on the perimeter and an aggressor with the ball when he sees an opportunity.

They are elements of his skill set that the nine-year veteran knows he’s always had in him since he entered the league.

“I think it’s just the persona and assumption,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of being considered as one-dimensional. “I think the perception of what people have always seen. But I’ve always considered myself as a playmaker. I’ve always been able to make plays, even at UCLA.

“When you come into the NBA, you have to, like, find your niche and something that you’re really good at, and for me, it was playing defense and be a great defender. But I’ve always thought I was a good player. Obviously, I improve on my shot, shooting my threes, and making plays off the dribble. But I think I’ve always looked at myself as a basketball player and a complete player and a playmaker—not just one-sided.”

The jumper has really come along nicely, and—for a Rockets team that fires up nearly 43 threes a night and takes half of their attempts from beyond the arc—it was essential for that to happen. He started to find it with the Los Angeles Clippers and it’s continued to get better under D’Antoni.

Though his percentage from long distance was higher last season (so far), what’s been different between the two situations is the frequency he takes those shots.

“Just going out there and doing it and being in position,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of his success. “The setting’s where it’s allowed to do it consistently and you don’t have to think about it—if you have an open shot, you shoot it—that makes things easier. It gives you a lot more confidence. It’s just kinda just letting you play your game. You don’t have to think about it. Just play basketball and have fun.”

Playing With Two All-Stars

Of course, what we’re not talking about is how much simpler it is to make shots when two MVP-caliber teammates are setting you up possession after possession.

There was a lot of hype coming into the season, but quite a few detractors as well when it came to predicting how Paul and Harden would play with one another in the same backcourt.

“I think in any situation, it’s about a will right?” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of their chemistry. “If you wanna make things work, you’re gonna make things work. You’re gonna find a way. Those guys know they have to compromise somehow in ways, and they understood what’s at stake here for the team to get better and us to have a chance to win a championship.

“I think anytime you get a chance to do that, you gotta put a lot of stuff on the side and make some sacrifices, and I think they’ve done a good job so far of doing that. Each one of ‘em.”

Mbah a Moute speaks highly of both of his teammates, one of which is new and the other of which he’s played with for the last three years.

He describes Paul as a smart player who is demanding on the court with years of knowledge about the game, which is exactly why he’s so attentive to details, and his guys love it.

“Gosh, which one?” Mbah a Moute pondered to Basketball Insiders when asked to provide a case where that was demonstrated. “It’s a lot of examples. Some of the ways he plays. Sometimes he pushes the ball. People think he’s just slowing it down and pushing it up just to push it, but he’s looking at something. He’s seeing something that he’s trying to exploit.

“I don’t have a particular example in mind, but it’s a lot of stuff like that, that you might look at it like it’s regular basketball, but it’s an intent and a purpose to it. Pretty much everything he does has an intent and purpose to it, which is pretty unbelievable. With him and James out there, you’ve always got two great playmakers who can make guys better and make plays.”

Calling Harden a guy that can make plays is true, but that still doesn’t nearly do him enough justice. The man is the clear-cut frontrunner for Most Valuable Player as it stands right now a week before the All-Star break. According to NBAMath.com, the 28-year-old has added 329 offensive points to Houston this season. That is far and away the highest amount compared to the next set of great names on the list after his.

He does it with isolation drives and stepback threes. He does it with distributing the ball. He does it by picking his matchups’ pockets and finishing in transition.

Recently with Paul sidelined by a groin injury, Harden led the Rockets to a close victory over the Orlando Magic on the road, recording the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history.

“He made some crazy shots in that game,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders of the performance. “I didn’t know he had 60 until the end. The shots that he made and, you know, it was a tough game. Orlando came in and they’ve been playing hard. It was a close game and his will to make us win, get us a win really, pushed to it. And at the end of the game, he’s got a triple-double and he’s got 60.

“But he’s incredibly talented man. I played against him in college and I could always see his talent, but the way he’s playing this year, it’s unbelievable. Making the right plays, getting everybody around (him) better and doing all that man. It’s incredible.”

Works In Progress

Reading all of this probably makes you believe Houston has a real shot at contending for a championship. That’s because it’s true.

They’ve taken two out of three from the defending champion Golden State Warriors. They’ve had multiple winning streaks, including a stretch where they put together 14 straight between November and December. Everything has clicked and we’re only at the halfway mark of the season.

However, every team can improve no matter how good things may seem. For Mbah a Moute, he believes the defense needs to keep developing better habits.

“We still mess up some switches, when guys come off and we’re not talking right and we’re not proper on our switches,” he told Basketball Insiders. “The rotations defensively, sometimes we’re late. We got a lot of guys who can defend and guys who can switch off of, so we gotta get tighter on what we do.”

And like the team, it’s understood that, as a player, he too is an unfinished product.

“You can never be happy or satisfied,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders. “But I think I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m continuing to strive to be the best player I can possibly be. I’m excited about the opportunity this year on this team. I think it’s been great just as far as my growth and developing.

“Coach Mike is unbelievable at putting guys in the right position to succeed and he’s done that for me this year, so I’m excited about continuing to grow and grow with the team and hopefully get better and the team gets better and it helps us.”

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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