The vagaries of an NBA season make almost every team look like Sasquatch one week and a Who in Whoville the next.
The Houston Rockets looked invincible in November, winning 12 of 13, and snapped off 14 straight over the end of November and the beginning of December. They boatraced opponents, averaging 119.6 points per game and allowing just 103.4, and shot almost 40 percent on 3-pointers. James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon took turns from deep, with the usual support in kind from Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson. The air was, rightly, full of talk that this was the team that could legitimately beat Golden State in a seven-game series.
Then came December, and injuries to Paul, Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute, and the wheels came off.
Paul, who’d already missed 14 games earlier in the season with a bruised left knee, missed two games with a left adductor strain, but came back Friday. Capela returned on Sunday against the Lakers. But in the final minutes of regulation in the Rockets’ double overtime win Sunday, which ended a five-game losing streak, Harden pulled up after a drive, and came up limping. He went straight to the locker room and didn’t return, and was diagnosed with a strained hamstring. As of this morning, it’s not known how long he’ll be out.
We’re not tripping, because we know how we play. I’m a big believer in building and winning. ... You don’t need to learn stuff and lose."
When Harden returns and gets back up to speed, the Rockets will certainly soon resume destroying opponents under a barrage of 3-pointers and rim runs, deflections and snuffed shots at the rim that lead to runouts, and fourth quarters for Harden and Paul with ice on their knees.
But the temporary rough patch serves to illustrate how tenuous chemistry and momentum is to sustain over the six months of an NBA season, even for elite teams -- and how opponents could potentially go after the Rockets in the playoffs.
“We know what we have to do,” an unconcerned Paul said after the loss to the Washington Wizards on Friday. “We have to get it right. We’re not tripping, because we know how we play. I’m a big believer in building and winning. I said that a long time ago. You don’t need to learn stuff and lose. Learn stuff and win, and we done lost a few. All in all, we came out healthy. For us, that’s part of the process. We’re cool.”
For more than a week, though, everything went wrong -- inexplicable back-to-back home losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and the LA Clippers before Christmas. There was a Christmas Day loss in Oklahoma City late, and an impossible collapse in Boston, with Houston blowing a 26-point first-half lead and then getting some bad calls in the last five minutes of the game. But it should have never gotten to that point in the first place. And the losing streak reached five Friday, the team’s longest in almost five years, with a tired Rockets team not getting to D.C. until 3 a.m. They then got run out of Capital One Arena in the second half.
“It’s still there, but we’ve just got to focus on what we really need to do,” Gordon said. “Golden State, they’ve won championships. They know who they are. With us, we just need to continue to play the style of basketball we were early on -- we were playing fast, playing, trusting each other on defense. Once we do that for a consistent year, then we can focus on Golden State. I just think we’ve got to take it one step at a time. We’ve still got a lot of new guys. Yeah, we were hot for a second, and we can get on another hot streak again. We’re not really worried. But we’ve got to do the little things.”
There’s a reason Harden was all in for getting Paul. His absence put that weight vest of expectations right back on Harden, a burden he carried heroically all last season, but which overwhelmed him in the playoffs. In the postseason, Harden shot 41.3 percent overall and 27.8 percent on 3-pointers, tapping out with a horrific 2 of 11 performance in a 39-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. The Rockets couldn’t afford for Harden to run out of gas again. But it’s imperative that Paul be upright and in uniform in May and June.
“We ask so much of James, and that’s why we went out and got Chris,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Because James was making every determining play, and he gets tired. Anybody would. So there are moments where he’s completely overloaded, and he has a turnover. And now, we can take all those plays away from him -- when he’s making, instead of 50 decisions, let’s say 40, or 30. It’s 30 without being tired decisions. That’s huge.”
When he’s not there, we don’t throw lobs, hardly, to anybody to put pressure on the defense. ... We don’t have a true, true rim protector when he’s not there. He definitely plays a major role, for sure."
The impact of Paul’s absence was obvious -- an all-world ballhandler who can create, score and pass at an elite level while offering terrific on-ball and help defense. And for Houston, Paul’s impact on Harden alone is worth whatever deal the Rockets work out with him, whether now (Paul is now eligible for a contract extension) or next summer, when he hits unrestricted free agency. No one around the league expects anything other than him re-signing with Houston.
But the absence of Mbah a Moute, out since dislocating his right shoulder Dec. 13, has impacted Houston more than you’d think. His defensive bona fides should go without saying at this point and having him on the floor with P.J. Tucker at the end of games gives the Rockets multiple switching options defensively.
Offensively, Mbah a Moute has struggled so far on corner 3-pointers -- just 7 of 30 so far, per NBA.com/Stats -- he’s been extremely good getting the ball to the front of the rim on drives and cuts, as most are who play off of Harden and Paul.
Capela’s absence may be the biggest of all, both short and long term. Houston’s demeanor changes completely when the 23-year-old isn’t on the floor. He missed the two games before Sunday with a right orbital fracture … after missing two of three games before that with a bruised heel.
The Rockets want to keep his backup, Nene, healthy for the playoffs and he’s on a strict non- back-to-back schedule during the regular season. But when he’s pressed into service when Capela’s out, that has a ripple effect.
“The thing that Clint does is, we spread the floor open,” Gordon said. “With him, he’s catching lobs. And when he’s not there, we don’t throw lobs, hardly, to anybody to put pressure on the defense. And, he’s a rim protector. We don’t have a true, true rim protector when he’s not there. He definitely plays a major role, for sure. He plays a major role in what we do.”
D’Antoni has tried to make things as easy as possible, eliminating shootarounds. Houston arrives at its road destination early enough the day before to practice and go over opponents then, rather than the morning of the game.
We were No. 1 in the West a couple of days ago. When you’ve been around long enough, you realize it’s all about how you’re playing."
“We think rest is more important and we cover the opposing team the day before in practice,” D’Antoni said, adding that he can call an audible when necessary. “We feel the determining factor for us is having the right energy.”
Even though General Manager Daryl Morey has made no secret of the fact that he’s got nothing but the Warriors on his mind, Paul seems to want his group to emulate the San Antonio Spurs rather than Golden State.
“It’s no secret they’re the defending champions,” he said of the Warriors. “They’ve won the West, what, three years in a row? So until somebody beats them, they’re the reigning champs. You can do that if you want to, but it’s a league that changes. It changes. We were No. 1 in the West a couple of days ago. When you’ve been around long enough, you realize it’s all about how you’re playing. Where’s San Antonio right now?
Told they were just behind Houston after the Rockets’ losing streak, Paul said, “they ain’t tripping. They just want to get their guys healthy.”
If Paul’s not on the floor, teams get much more aggressive against Houston. The Celtics picked up Harden full court for long stretches Thursday, looking to wear him down, and did the same whenever Gordon brought up the ball. It led to a lot more one-pass-and-shoot shots for the Rockets rather than the ball whipping around like it normally does. And Harden and Gordon were just 5 of 27 combined from the floor in the second half and overtime.
Now, Houston must wait for Harden to heal before it can get back on track. With back to back games in Orlando Wednesday and against the Warriors at Toyota Center Thursday, one would guess “The Beard” would take off Wednesday to have a chance to play against the champs the next night. The Rockets beat Golden State on opening night with their full squad, but Paul then went out with the bruised knee.
“We know that we’re going to be up there,” Gordon said. “We just need to concentrate on what we need to do. We were hot, we was doing all the little things, helping each other. Now, we’ve hit a skid where offensively, we’re not … Golden State, I look at them, they’re getting almost 30 assists a night, and we’re not doing that, and we play just as fast as they do. That’s the point we’ve got to get to, moving the ball and helping each other on defense. That’s what we’ve got to realize: once that ball moves, everybody scores, in big numbers. You can’t score big numbers if that assist number ain’t going up. That’s what we’ve got to understand.”
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