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Finally in a comfortable situation, Eric Gordon's star is shining

A move to the bench has given the guard a renewed bounce

Fran Blinebury

He has hardly been in the game, first possession, one trip down the court, barely enough time to get loose when Eric Gordon, well, gets loose out on the right wing.

Here comes the pass from center Clint Capela, here goes the 3-point shot and there go the Rockets to another of their eight straight wins that have made everyone sit up and take notice.

It was 25 seconds from the time Gordon stepped onto the floor at Toyota Center and the ball hit the bottom of the net.

“Why wait?” Gordon asked. “I was comfortable.”

And he’s waited long enough. It’s been five years, at least, since the 6-foot-4 guard has felt this comfortable, positively snug as a bug in a rug on a team that not only wants him, but knows what to do with him.

He went to New Orleans in 2011 as a key component of then-commissioner David Stern’s orchestrated deal that sent Chris Paul to the Clippers and struggled through five seasons of injuries and uncertainty.

“It was weird that it all changed so much,” Gordon said. “The first year I got to New Orleans I was a major playmaker. After that I just became more of just a shooting guard, never had the ball in my hands. It was just catch-and-shoot and they had other guys try to make the plays.”

Due to knee and wrist and hand and groin injuries, Gordon never missed fewer than 18 games in a season, averaged just 42, and as a result, never knew where he fit and was more than ready for a change of scenery when he signed as a free agent with Rockets over the summer.

“This was a perfect time in my career to be a free agent and make a change,” Gordon said. “Things never worked out, never came together in New Orleans. They kept changing what they wanted me to do and in five years there we only had one good year where we made the playoffs. It was just time for me to go.”

Tonight he’ll face off against his former team (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) as the likely early leader for Sixth Man of the Year honors. He started 217 of 221 games for the Pelicans. But since moving for good to his role coming off the bench, Gordon is averaging 17.5 points per game, shooting 46.1 percent on 3-pointers and, most significantly, the Rockets are 13-2.

“He just fits,” said forward Ryan Anderson, who played the past four seasons with Gordon on the Pelicans before accompanying him to Houston. “You can get see the way Eric goes out there on the court every night and looks like he belongs. I’ve seen this kind of ability all the time in New Orleans, but he just could never seem to get any kind of rhythm with his health and with the way the team wanted to use him. But to see the way he’s playing now? Oh, that’s not a surprise.”

What was surprising to Gordon was his shift to the bench after the first eight NBA seasons as a starter. That was the thought coming to Houston until the Rockets wobbled to a 6-5 start with Gordon not quite fitting in the backcourt now that James Harden has taken over the point guard job and more than the lion’s share of the ball-handling. So when Patrick Beverley (hand injury) came off the shelf after those first 11 games, coach Mike D’Antoni made the shift and the team hasn’t looked back.

The Rockets rely on Harden the way a tent rests on the pole in the middle to hold everything up. But by having Gordon able to come off the bench and take the role of big-gun scorer, it gives the Beard an opportunity for a breather without the Rockets’ whole offensive house tumbling down around their ears.

As a result, Gordon looks rejuvenated and almost electric bounding off the bench.

“It’s definitely an adjustment,” he said. “When I first came here I never thought my role would be coming off the bench. But with me, I’ll do anything to win. As long as we’re winning, I’m fine with it.”

Though it’s hardly been apparent, there was some getting used to the new role.

“The kind of guys you’re playing with,” Gordon said. “You’re playing with more energy guys off the bench. Some are inexperienced. With the starters, you usually have more of the veterans. They all know what to do. They’ve been around longer. So you just got to have more energy right away when you come into a game off the bench.”

In the minutes when he does play alongside Harden in the backcourt, Gordon doesn’t back down.

“When he has the ball I try to shoot and try to open the game up more. It opens it up for him…When that happens, he’s unstoppable.”

Gordon is explosive at getting off his own shot and also getting to the rim. And that no-hesitation jumper that’s smooth as velvet makes him the perfect passing target for Harden as a spot-up 3-point shooter. In the past 11 games, Gordon has made at least four treys nine times, at least six 3s on four occasions and cut loose to nail 8-for-12 against the Lakers.

“Good as you can make it,” D’Antoni said. “I mean, talk about a good sixth man. Oh my gosh, he’s really good.

“What you kind of miss is when he comes to us, he’s a great defender,” D’Antoni said. “He’s not a good defender — he’s a great defender. You put that with what he’s doing (on offense), it’s great to have him, that’s for sure.”

The Rockets have been transformed from last season’s 41-41 collection of mopers to 19-7 and the upper echelon of the Western Conference, also due to their harmony and willingness to sacrifice and play for each other.

“(He’s a) professional,” Harden said of Gordon. “True professional. He just wants to win. He was in a not-so-happy situation where he came from. Now he’s happy. He’s winning.”

Comfortable, at last.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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