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Did the four-month shutdown help or hurt Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the Houston Rockets?
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Steve Aschburner: I see no reason why it would hurt them more than any other team, and perhaps a theory on why the shutdown might have helped them. Given the transformation of that Rockets squad, in adapting to Westbrook and then playing bigs-less, that was a lot with which to get comfortable on the fly of the 82-game regular season. This Big Pause of the pandemic postponement may have allowed Mike D’Antoni, his staff and his players to catch their collective breath and at least visualize how they might better play together in this current permutation. I still think they’ve stripped themselves of one option on offense, putting even more stress on their basket attacks and deep balls. So I don’t consider Houston to be a serious championship threat. But I do think, when it’s all done, the break will be seen as having helped them.
Shaun Powell: I'd say it helped them. James Harden, on fire from November through January, looked gassed after the All-Star break; that's about three months earlier than usual for him. And the Rockets were working out the kinks of their small-ball approach. So now, Harden gets new life and legs and the Rockets likely have a better grip on their new identity, with Russ all but abandoning the 3-point shot on a team that lives and dies with those. This isn't to suggest Houston is now in the championship mix, but perhaps no longer looked upon as first-round roadkill.
John Schuhmann: It's impossible to know how four months off will affect any of these teams, but it's not hard to look on the bright side for the Rockets. With their switch-happy scheme, they really need to be cohesive on defense, so it might take some time for them to be at their best (which isn't that bad, really) on that end of the floor. But that second-ranked offense relies heavily on individual talent and, if James Harden is healthy and rested, the Rockets will be a problem for opposing defenses. The layoff has seemingly allowed Mike D'Antoni, architect of some great after-timeout plays and maybe the best offensive coach in NBA history, time to tinker with a style of play (no centers, fewer ball screens) that they adopted mid-season. Westbrook will continue to attack relentlessly and other guys are always going to get open looks, but a little more ball movement (their first two scrimmages have produced two of their 11 highest assist-percentage marks of the season) could produce better shots for Harden.
Sekou Smith: The time off had to help the Rockets. They looked like a worn down bunch right before the hiatus, no doubt a product of the season's grind and the switch to a small-ball regular lineup. Rest for the players, the introspective study time for D'Antoni and his staff and the opportunity for all of them to reboot emotionally and mentally surely has to work in their favor. That said, I don't think the time off changes their championship calculus. Their deficiencies against certain teams won't change. Harden and Westbrook will still have to perform at galactic level for this team to disrupt all things L.A. once the playoffs begin. Are they capable? Sure. Am I ready to designate them as the championship wild card team? Not exactly. I need to see more in the seeding games and where they end up in the standings.
Michael C. Wright: We saw stories about a slimmed-down Harden in better shape before the teams arrived at Walt Disney World, but I’m still a little skeptical of Harden, even a day after the man racked up 31 points on 7-of-15 shooting in 36 minutes against the Grizzlies. So, for me, the verdict is still out on Harden, who actually looks much sharper than expected. But Westbrook clearly struggled in his first scrimmage after his arrival to the NBA bubble. When the league first went on hiatus, it seemed like Houston was finally starting to master the Harden-Westbrook dynamic. Westbrook hit 20 of 36 in those games with 14 rebounds, 11 assists and 51 points. Understandably, Westbrook was rusty in his first game back in Orlando, hitting 3 of 14 for eight points and six rebounds. Clearly, the layoff didn’t help Westbrook, but I’m not sure it benefitted Harden either.