HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets firmly believe they were the NBA’s best team last season, robbed of a championship by the basketball gods when Chris Paul strained his hamstring when they were one win away from dethroning the Golden State Warriors.
But nobody in the Houston locker room is worried about what-ifs right now. They’re working on writing this chapter, not revisiting history.
And as confident as the Rockets were a year ago, they consider themselves a significantly better team now. The regular-season standings might indicate differently, but the Rockets probably won’t get any arguments from the Utah Jazz after a pair of routs to open their first-round series.
“We’re as good as anybody, if not better than everybody,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after Houston’s 118-98 win in Wednesday’s Game 2.
The Rockets didn’t have a smooth road this season. They finished with a dozen fewer wins than a season ago, stumbling to an 11-14 start with summer additions such as Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams proving to be poor fits. They dealt with extended absences of Paul and center Clint Capela due to injuries.
However, since general manager Daryl Morey’s midseason bench makeover and James Harden‘s co-stars got healthy, the Rockets don’t have to stretch much to stake a claim as the NBA’s premier team. After the All-Star break, the Rockets had the league’s best record (20-5) and net rating (plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions). And they’ve humiliated the team that ranked second in net rating during that span in the first two games of the playoffs.
“We have more confidence than last year,” Capela told ESPN after anchoring another dominant defensive effort. “But it’s just the beginning, because last year we went so far. We still know we have a lot to do. It’s just two wins in the playoffs. We know that we have to get 16 wins total, and it gets harder every game.”
When D’Antoni was asked if he thought the Rockets were better than a year ago, the first reason he cited was Harden’s improvement. As crazy as it sounds, Harden became much better as a 29-year-old coming off of an MVP season.
Harden had the best defensive season of his career, which could be considered faint praise, but ranking second in steals and deflections and playing elite post defense isn’t a joke. He’s in the best shape he’s ever been, partially due to intense postgame workouts that he has continued in the playoffs. He worked to make his floater — the poison defenses prefer to pick — one of the best in the game. And Harden’s signature stepback 3 became an even more lethal weapon simply because he’s capable of shooting it at historic volume, shattering Stephen Curry‘s regular-season record for 3-pointers attempted.
The Jazz fear that stepback so much that they designed a defensive scheme primarily to take it away in Game 1, essentially inviting Harden into the teeth of the defense, where he picked them apart with his passing. Utah tweaked the scheme in Game 2 to not overplay his left hand so aggressively, and Harden went 6-of-13 from 3-point range en route to a 32-point triple-double.
“I don’t know what else we could ask of him,” D’Antoni said. “Just, he gets tired every once in a while, so he is human. But the year that he’s had has been ridiculous.”
Mike D’Antoni praises James Harden and the Rockets for being able to weather the storm of the regular season.
Harden arguably had the best offensive season in NBA history, with by far the best true shooting percentage (.616) and the most assists (7.4 per game) of any player to average more than 35 points. But his favorite topic to discuss these days is defense, which he considers the key to the Rockets’ potential championship run.
The Rockets were so horrible on that end of the floor that owner Tilman Fertitta recruited defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik out of his brief retirement, giving him a significant raise to return as Houston’s associate head coach. It seemed ludicrous when Bzdelik said that the Rockets — who allowed two of their stoppers, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, to leave in free agency — could be a better defensively than their 65-win team from last season. But that’s what has happened over the last couple of months, as only the Jazz had a better defensive rating than the Rockets (105.3 points per 100 possessions) after the All-Star break.
The Rockets have ratcheted it up another notch in this series. Sure, it helps that Utah has been horrific shooting (15-of-65 from 3-point range), but the Rockets have been made themselves at home in the Jazz’s faces and heads. It was evident that it would be another long night for Utah on Wednesday when the Jazz committed turnovers on the first two possessions — and then Harden got cooking, scoring 17 points and dishing out four assists in the first quarter as the Rockets jumped out to a 20-point lead.
The goal all along was to peak during the playoffs. So far, so good.
“We’re almost there,” Harden said. “Offense, I’m not worried about. We’ve been a great offensive team all year, but defensively, I think we’re locked in. When I say we’re where we want to be, it’s because of our defense. When we guard like that and we get into their bodies and we rebound the basketball and push the tempo in transition, it’s pretty hard to beat us.”
Pretty hard to beat them? That’s Harden being understated. PJ Tucker, Houston’s glue guy who is shooting 50 percent from long distance in this series, put it just a bit more bluntly.
“When we do what we do, I don’t think anybody can beat us,” Tucker said. “And that’s a fact.”