The 2019-20 NBA season went on hiatus on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The season will return on July 30 and NBA.com‘s writers are taking an updated look at each of the league’s 30 teams.
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Record: 40-24, No. 6 in Western Conference
Season summary: The Rockets made it clear with their trade for Russell Westbrook last July that they’re not pulling punches in their quest this season to knock off the title contenders. Houston only amplified the point in February at the trade deadline with its decision to go all-in on small ball by trading Clint Capela as part of a four-team transaction that landed Minnesota’s Robert Covington. Bubbling beneath Houston’s win-at-all-costs mentality is the contract situation of coach Mike D’Antoni, who broke off talks for an extension during the offseason and is in the final year of his deal. When the NBA season went on hiatus, the Rockets were in the midst of a pivotal point in the season. After adding Covington, Houston won seven of its next nine games, including six in a row. Then just as quickly, it started to look like the small-ball experiment wasn’t working, with the team dropping four in a row before defeating Minnesota in its final game before the hiatus. Given all the moves Houston made, it likely expected to be sitting higher than sixth in the Western Conference standings.
Breakout player: Established stars and former Kia MVP winners Westbrook and James Harden don’t fit into this category, so we’ll go with Covington here. In his Rockets debut on Feb. 6, Covington produced 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists in addition to blocking a couple of shots in the team’s shocking road win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Covington also drained a couple of clutch 3-pointers down the stretch in that game. Covington would go on to tally double figures in seven of Houston’s next nine games, including a 20-point night against the Golden State Warriors in which he hit 50% from range. Covington’s long-range accuracy comes in handy when Harden and Westbrook break down defenses, which leaves shooters open on the perimeter. But Covington’s defense is what makes him Houston’s breakout player. Covington has blocked four shots in four different games already, and he’s racked up multiple blocks in 11 of his 14 games with the Rockets for a total of 35. Covington is averaging 12.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game with the Rockets, but it’s his defensive versatility that allows him to guard multiple positions that stands out.
Statement win: Houston made quite the statement when it totally leaned in on playing small in a Feb. 6 win on the road over the Lakers. The Rockets’ starting lineup featured no player taller than 6-foot-6, and the monstrous Lakers had no answers. Westbrook lit up the Lakers for 41 points, scoring his 20,000th career point in that game to join LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to tally 20,000 points, 7,000 assists and 6,000 rebounds. Covington, meanwhile, hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers late in a game in which Harden managed to contribute just 14 points. Houston was finally fully embracing small ball. “Every time you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it,” D’Antoni said after the game. “This helps a lot because if you come in here and get spanked, it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ ”
Most exciting game: GM Daryl Morey calls the Feb. 6 win over the Lakers his favorite. But let’s go with this 317-point game in which Harden rings up 59 points on 32 shots to lead his team to a 159-158 victory vs. Washington after knocking down one of two free throws with 2.4 seconds left. Bradley Beal led the WIzards with 46 points, and even tied the game at 158 with 8.1 seconds remaining by sinking three free throws. Westbrook would score just three points over the first three quarters, before erupting for 14 in the fourth quarter as he notched his second triple-double of the season with 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
Memorable moments: We go back to Nov. 13 when the Rockets bested the Clippers 102-93. With 1:31 left to play, Austin Rivers gestured toward referee Tony Brothers to whistle his father, Doc Rivers, for a technical foul. When officials finally ejected the Clippers coach, Austin Rivers walked toward the scorer’s table smiling. He later would wave goodbye to his father as he was escorted off the court, while signaling with a thumb to his ear and pinky finger to his mouth for Doc Rivers to give him a call. Westbrook and Harden combined to score 24 of Houston’s 28 points in the fourth quarter as the Rockets captured their fifth-straight victory. Another hilarious Rockets’ moment took place on Oct. 26 in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Just before the half, Harden tried to draw a foul on a 3-pointer at the buzzer but lost the ball after making contact with Pelicans guard Josh Hart. Harden slammed the ball in frustration after the play, and it bounced back up and smacked him in the face. Hart’s reaction here is priceless.
Team MVP: Harden not only is Houston’s MVP, he’s in strong contention in this season’s Kia MVP chase. As John Schuhmann points out here: Harden has knocked down 27 more 3-pointers (271) and 138 more free throws (619) than any other player. He’s done it all in an innovative way that dazzles spectators and frustrates opponents. Even Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, admits Harden is the league’s most difficult player to guard. For six years straight, Harden has hit at least 200 3-pointers and 600 free throws. When the league suspended play, Harden was leading the NBA in scoring, averaging 34.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists while connecting on 43.5% from the floor and 35.2% from 3-point range. Westbrook is producing at a similar clip (27.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.0 assists). But the truth is Houston’s fate in 2019-20 depends mostly on how well Harden performs. Morey and D’Antoni have spent considerable time and resources building around Harden, and you can tell the former MVP, who turned 30 in August, is starting to feel some pressure to deliver Houston a championship.
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