As we reach December, the NBA landscape is becoming clearer. The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer strangely outside the playoff picture as they have improved their wretched defense, among other changes, and are now in third place in the Eastern Conference. The Orlando Magic got off to a hot start but have come crashing back to earth after losing eight straight. Same goes for the Memphis Grizzlies who have lost eight in a row as well after a good start (and who reportedly fired head coach David Fizdale earlier today).
The Cavaliers, Magic and Grizzlies aren’t the only teams that are heavily trending in one direction or another. The Houston Rockets have been on an upswing as of late, which may have been easier to miss. While the team didn’t have a horrid start like the Cavaliers, the Rockets also weren’t lighting the league on fire. As of October 30, the Rockets were 5-3 after losing to the Grizzlies twice. Since then, the team has won 10 of their last 11 games and are currently on a four-game winning streak. With their current streak of success, the team has, for now, taken first place in the Western Conference away from the Golden State Warriors.
Last season, James Harden shouldered the burden of being the most important and effective scorer and distributor for the team. This season Harden has Chris Paul to share that passing and focal point spotlight. Paul went down with a knee injury after game one but returned on November 16. Paul’s return coincided with the team’s current four-game winning streak. Harden spoke about Paul’s role as an additional playmaker.
“Me and Chris [Paul] did a really good job of just trying to get guys shots and be aggressive,” Harden stated.
And that’s exactly what Harden and Paul did as they racked up 23 assists and only two turnovers combined.
There isn’t much surprise that with Harden, capable shooters and Mike D’Antoni as the coach, the Rockets can score effectively. They are second in the NBA in offensive rating (112.1), per nba.com. More surprising is that much of their success is connected to their defense. The team is ranked seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (101.7). In addition, only the Warriors (13.4) have a similarly high net rating as the Rockets (10.4). The Rockets are playing strong defense, great offense and winning by big margins.
After the win against the New York Knicks (minus Kristaps Porzingis), it was apparent that the team’s defense is, in part, fueling their explosive offense.
“When we play, we really lock in and focus on defense, it always ignites our offense,” Forward Trevor Ariza stated. “We always get fast break opportunities, get easy buckets and the sooner we realize that the better off we’re going to be.”
Harden’s explanation mirrored Ariza’s as he described the Rocket’s early inability to stop the Knicks, which correlated with the team’s inability to score as well.
“We couldn’t get stops, that’s how we score,” Harden stated. “We get stops, we get out in transition.”
Harden went on to talk about how valuable the bench’s contributions are to this team.
“That’s what the team is all about. The starters aren’t always going to get it done. Beginning of the game, the bench came in with the energy. And in the second half, we put on a show defensively, especially in that third quarter,” Harden stated.
Credit should be given to new additions to the team for infusing the team with additional defensive potential and versatility. In the offseason, the Rockets acquired Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker. Mbah a Moute and Tucker, along with Ariza, Nene, Paul and Eric Gordon, give D’Antoni the ability to put out lineups strong on both ends of the floor every game. When asked, D’Antoni made it clear how valuable Moute is to the team.
“He’s really good and we got a really good steal […] He’s up to about 40 percent shooting threes. His defense is always stellar. He can drive and pass, he’s just a great player,” D’Antoni stated. “It’s unbelievable that we could get him.”
While D’Antoni is known for relying on shorter rotations, he’s admitted that he has a lot of really good players deserving of playing time.
“At some point, our team has to get to, we usually have a rotation of nine guys. [With] the two centers, seven guys. And really, if you think about it, we’ve got seven starters on any team in the NBA,” D’Antoni stated. “And whether you start or you don’t start, whether you come off the bench, you know, the important thing is how many minutes you are getting.”
With the team winning with defensive pressure, ball movement and shared minutes, players have to be ready to contribute whenever their name is called.
“The key for everybody is to be patient and wait for your turn to come. When it does come, take advantage of it,” Ariza stated.
The recent stretch of games has vaulted the Rockets into first place in the standings. During this time, the team has reintegrated Paul back into the flow while experimenting with line-up changes and balancing players’ minutes. In the latest win against the Knicks, D’Antoni brought Ryan Anderson, who normally starts, off the bench and placed Tucker in the starting line-up.
“So, it doesn’t matter who does start, who doesn’t. You know, we have to get to a point where we can match up a little bit better certain ways,” D’Antoni stated.
In last year’s playoffs, the Rockets watched as Harden appeared to run out of gas towards the end of the series and failed to react to the adjustments the San Antonio Spurs made. This year, line-up changes, like the one with Anderson and Tucker, gives the team a chance to see how flexible they can be. The Rockets know this can be essential when the playoffs come around, especially if they eventually go toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors.
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