Of all the teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets always seemed the least likely to just surrender to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. And that proved to be true as the Rockets pulled off an impressive offseason. First, they added star power with Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Then they added defensive specialists PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to supplement a roster already brimming with three-point shooters.
Still, there were plenty of question marks heading into the season. Primarily, how would James Harden and Paul co-exist when both liked to handle the ball early and often? Paul had gravitated towards a slower pace while running the show for the Los Angeles Clippers. Would he be able to adjust to the quicker tempo in Houston?
The Rockets were unwaveringly confident publicly. One of the counter points to the scepticism was that, with the right staggering of minutes, Houston would have Hall of Fame level point guard play for the full 48 minutes. Another was that the defense would surely improve with Paul, Tucker and Mbah a Moute.
So far, the results have been spectacular. Houston have won 11 straight and, at 22-4, boast the league’s best record. Though Paul missed a chunk of games at the start of the season with a knee injury, the Rockets remained unguardable. Since his return, they have been blowing teams away. On Wednesday night, the Charlotte Hornets were the latest team to be brushed aside by half-time. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has got his team on pace for an all-time offensive season. Harden is the MVP frontrunner at this early stage.
Lineups featuring Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Tucker are ready-made for facing the Warriors. They have shooting, length and “switchability” on defense. Big man Clint Capela has made another big leap this season as a rim protector and pick and roll dunker.
Despite all of this, they would still be underdogs in a series against the Warriors. But they would have a chance. That’s more than most teams around the league can say. If Steph Curry’s ankle injury limits him in some way or if the Rockets catch fire from behind the three-point line, an upset could be in play. Home court advantage would be a plus too.
Of course, Houston have plenty of work to do before scheming for a Western Conference Finals matchup, especially when the path might go through the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. But the Rockets have set their sights commendably high and they are determined to make this a real race.