There was an aura of confidence in the postgame visitors’ locker room on a recent Tuesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Why wouldn’t there be? The Rockets just came into the arena and beat a frisky Nets team, 123-113. A road win by a team with championship aspirations over a sub .500 club is expected and generally nothing to get excited about. But there was something different in the way the Rockets players talked during their postgame media availability. As of the posting of this article, the Rockets are 44-13 and sit 1/2 game up on the defending champion Warriors and have the best record in the NBA. Make no mistake about it, they want the #1 seed and home-court advantage because the Rockets believe this is their year to not only challenge the Warriors but win the NBA championship.
It’s the reason Rockets GM Daryl Morey pulled off the Chris Paul trade in the offseason. He knew that getting past the Warriors would take more than one superstar in James Harden. They needed to attract at least another and fill their roster with a bunch of players that could hit threes and defend. All of that has led to the league’s best record. They are ranked #1 in offensive rating, #9 in defensive rating and #1 in point differential. They take and make the most 3’s in the league and are the only team in the league to have 3 starters (Harden, Paul & Clint Capela) in the top 10 in PER. That’s a recipe for a deep playoff run and if things break correctly a championship.
As well as the Rockets are playing, winners of 10 straight at the all-star break. Many still believe, despite their lackadaisical play, the Golden State Warriors are still the class of the league and favorites to repeat as champs. The road to a title almost assuredly goes through Oakland. Morey knows this, saying earlier this season:
It’s the only thing we think about. I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’
The obsession is palpable, he talks about it and the players and head coach Mike D’Antoni feel it. They don’t shy away from mentioning, playing the Warriors is not just a regular game. It’s an opportunity to measure themselves and see just how close they actually are. The Rockets and Warriors played three times this season, Rockets won the series 2-1; thus owning the tiebreak if it’s needed to determine playoff seeding.
After that aforementioned victory over the Nets earlier this week, Capela was asked about the importance of where the Rockets land in the seeding. With just under 25 games left, it’ll be critical.
Capela talks about openly making the Warriors aware of their presence. Recently Kevin Durant and Steph Curry were asked about the Rockets and both players acknowledged what the team from Texas is doing. They are keenly aware that they are now “chasing” for the first time in a while.
While Durant, Curry & company have a championship pedigree to lean on come playoff time, the Rockets do not. The previous failures of their two stars in the playoffs is the focal point of any argument dismissing the team’s playoff chances but that is a bit overblown. Chris Paul’s playoff averages are 21.4 ppg, 9.4 apg, 2.2 spg. His shooting splits are: 48.4%, 38.1%, and 84.7%, with an eFG of 53.2%. Do you know what his regular season averages are? 18.7 ppg, 9.8 apg, and 2.3 spg. His shooting splits are: 47.3%, 37.3%, and 86.7%, with an eFG of 51.8%. Those numbers tell me he is, statistically, slightly better come playoff time. But what do we all remember? His tremendous gaffe in the 2014 playoffs against the Thunder, and blowing a 3-1 series lead against his current team, the Rockets, while a member of the Clippers. Horrible marks on his playoff record for sure. But outside of those two series, he has played very well. Now, he’s never led a team past the second round, but a lot of that is circumstantial.
Harden’s playoff shortcomings are much harder to explain away. His numbers nosedive in the postseason. His regular season averages of: 22.8 ppg, 6 apg, and 5 rpg on shooting splits of 44.3%, 36.6%, and 85.5%, with an eFG of 52.2% drop to 20.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, and 5.2 apg on 42.3%, 33.5%, and 86.9%, with an eFG of 49.4%. The most glaring dropoff coming in the last two seasons. Part of that issue is due to the heavy minutes and usage he logs in the regular season and a rumored propensity for enjoying the nightlife. But there is something noticeably different in Harden’s eyes this season. There is a hunger, an even deeper commitment level. The man has been a runner-up league MVP twice, so he’s committed. But this year it’s different. Perhaps he’s tired of hearing about his shortcomings. Perhaps he knows there is a destiny for him to fulfill. Perhaps he saw former teammate and good buddy Kevin Durant taste the success of a championship and wants his turn.
The addition of Paul cannot be overstated. The “Point God” is an exacting and demanding leader, but more importantly, he saw something in Harden and the Rockets. Harden is by far the best player Paul has ever teamed with, and while Harden played with Durant and Russell Westbrook back in OKC, that was early in his career. OKC management let that trio breakup before they could realize their full potential. But in Houston, you arguably have the best backcourt in the NBA. At all times D’Antoni will have one of the league’s best point guards on the floor. What other teams can say that?
For Paul, this is a chance for him to exorcise some of those playoff demons. While the missteps have been largely overblown, he hears the criticism and knows that his legacy would be forever altered if he’s able to win a title with this Rockets team. He is already one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game. A title would eliminate the, “yeah, but he never won a chip.”
The all-star break officially ends on Thursday and while Harden was the only Rocket to make the squad, the extended rest is good for his teammates. Paul, still an elite point guard, is 32 and a veteran of many playoff battles. This break comes at the right time. He can take care of his body, recover and gear up for the stretch run for the #1 seed and the playoffs. The break will also give veteran players like Trevor Ariza (who is injured), P.J. Tucker, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute a chance to rest and get their minds and bodies right for a deep playoff run.
As it stands today, the Rockets and Warriors are 1 and 2 in the western conference playoff race. Barring any unforeseen issues, they will remain the top 2 seeds in some order. What that means is, they won’t face each other until the conference finals. That is the matchup that the basketball world wants to see. Odds are, the winner of that series will win the NBA title. No disrespect to whatever team comes out of the eastern conference.
Looking up and down both rosters, this is a series that should go 7 games and home court advantage might be the key. The Rockets possess the only backcourt that could go shot for shot with the Warriors’ splash brothers. When D’Antoni decides to go super small and put Eric Gordon out on the floor, that’s a lot of space and shooting. We are likely to see scores in the 120s or 130s during that series. Not because these teams can’t defend. Because great offense is nearly impossible to defend.
Here are the reasons why the Rockets can beat the Warriors and win the title:
Elite Playmaker Always on The Floor
During every minute of a game, either James Harden or Chris Paul will be on the floor. That is devastating, especially for an opponent’s second unit. When they are both on the floor, whoever doesn’t have the ball in his hands is an elite catch and shoot player from three.
Rotations do get shorter in the playoffs, but you’ll need contributions from role players to win a title. The bench mob in Golden State hasn’t looked good this year. Conversely, the Rockets have PJ Tucker, a solid “3 and D” guy, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green. Plus, they just added Joe Johnson, a man who can get you a bucket when you need it, and Brandan Wright. We haven’t even mentioned Nene. What this does is give the Rockets and D’Antoni lineup flexibility. That’s what makes the Warriors so tough is there ability to go big and small and everything in between. The Rockets bench can match that.
Home Court Advantage
This series is likely to go 7 games and having the deciding game on your home floor is huge. The Rockets have it as of now and if it comes down to the tiebreak they would get it. The Rockets are the hungrier team right now, and less likely to slack off in a game they should win.
Something that is difficult to measure and usually reserved for the teams with championship pedigrees. But this Rockets group has it. Call it “want to” or “hunger,” but whatever it is they have it and are out to prove something. When you’re at the top of the mountain it’s hard to stay motivated and fend off all the challengers. The Rockets’ biggest stars are hungry and have something to prove.
The time is now for the Rockets. With the cap flattening this summer, there won’t be teams with a ton of cap room. We are not likely to see a real balance of power shift like we did the past few summers. Chris Paul will be a year older next season and the young teams will get better. When you have a shot at the title, you’ve got to go all in to get it because you may never have that opportunity again.