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When Kevin Durant announced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors on July 4, the natural reaction of just about every basketball fan was to prepare for a third-straight Finals between the Cavs and Warriors.
If any teams had an outside shot, it would perhaps be the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers.
Quietly, the Houston Rockets re-vamped their coaching staff, roster, and James Harden kept away from the spotlight, training in the gym, rededicating himself to the game of basketball.
Coming into the season, not many people (myself included) pictured the Rockets even posing a threat for the third seed in the Western Conference.
Just making the playoffs was a question mark.
However, General Manager Daryl Morey did a masterful job finding pieces to fit the roster who complement Harden and just as importantly, fit new head coach Mike D’Antoni‘s system.
Not since Steve Nash has the former-Suns coach had a player with Harden’s passing and court vision.
The only difference is Harden is an even more lethal scorer and for a guy who wasn’t viewed as a point guard prior to 2016-17, he’s arguably playing the position better than anyone in the game this season.
Position labels are starting to fade away to begin with, but the bottom line is if you get the ball in Harden’s hands, he’ll create plays – either for himself or for his teammates.
Harden is accounting for 56.2 points of Houston’s offense per game (meaning he either scores or is credited for an assist to contribute to 56.2 points on average).
That’s the second-highest average in league history as of March 12, 2017, just behind Nate “Tiny” Archibald (56.8).
For all the criticism of Harden and Houston’s defense, the Rockets currently rank 16th in the league in defensive efficiency. …Meanwhile, the Cavs sit at 22nd.
That team defense isn’t only a result of Harden’s increased drive and focus, but his leadership sets the tone for everything the Rockets do.
As for the drastic improved production of Houston’s role players from 2015-16 to this year, Morey may have done the best job in the offseason of assembling personnel that match the pace and style his team strives to play with.
The additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon were risky, given their injury histories, but it was a gamble that has paid off and then some.
Houston attempts 40.6 three-pointers per game and makes 14.7, leading the league in both categories.
Anderson (13.9 ppg) and Gordon (16.7 ppg) combine to average over 30 points per game, and account for about six three-pointers per night.
Nene Hilario continues to serve a steady role as a rebounding machine off the bench and is a smooth finisher near the rim, as evidenced by his 12 points and 4 offensive rebounds in the win over the Cavs on Sunday. Nene shoots 61 percent from the field this season and averages just under nine points per game.
Even 22-year-old Sam Dekker has found a comfortable spot with the Rockets, averaging 7.0 points per game. Although this is technically his second season in the league, he only played three NBA games in 2015-16 and has helped add depth to Houston’s roster.
Montrezl Harrell started the year strong, but has lost playing time, mostly due to the depth of Houston’s roster when all of its bigs are healthy. The return of Clint Capela (12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds) has certainly cut into his time, but the good news for Houston is that depending on matchups, the Rockets can go a lot of different ways and throw a wide variety of looks at opposing teams.
Along with the depth that was added before the season, the trade for Lou Williams may have been one of the best deadline moves in terms of making an immediate impact. Williams provides instant offense off the bench, can create his own shot, and can handle the ball when Harden’s off the court or play at the same time as him.
The addition of Williams is one of several moves that will be taken into consideration for Morey’s case to be named Executive of the Year.
All of this depth, Harden’s MVP-caliber level of play, and a coaching staff/front office which seem tailor-made for success are integral factors as to why the Rockets have taken such a dramatic leap since last season, but a few of the already valuable guys on the roster, who continue to do their jobs the same way they did before, are now being utilized at a higher level of production because of the improvements around them.
Take for example, Patrick Beverly.
As an offensive point guard, he leaves much to be desired. He’s a great defender and can knock down open three’s, but not many teams would take him as a starting point guard over their current starters.
Now that Harden is actually playing the point guard position in a more true sense (not just playing iso-ball and waiting for the shot clock to run down), it allows Beverly to have a bigger positive impact.
When it comes time to try to contain elite point guards, Beverly is still the guy the Rockets entrust to do that job. The difference is, now that he’s surrounded by more talent, like Anderson and Gordon, he’s taking better shots, a result of the spacing created by all of Houston’s shooters.
Trevor Ariza, “old” reliable, quietly remains one of the better two-way small forwards in the league. Again, for all the criticism of Houston’s defense, there aren’t many small forwards who do a better job containing elite wings than Ariza.
All of these pieces to the puzzle, along with some drastic changes in the Western Conference dynamic, appear to make the Rockets a legitimate contender to win the West.
The news of LaMarcus Aldridge‘s heart condition doesn’t help San Antonio’s chances at overthrowing Golden State.
Durant’s knee injury is not as serious as it was feared to be at first, but the uncertainty of how long it will take him to return to full speed is a question that looms over the Warriors heading into the playoffs.
Looking at how the Western Conference playoff picture lines up, the Rockets will have a tough road regardless of how the seeding falls, but avoiding a second-round matchup with the Warriors will be important.
If the playoffs started today, third-seeded Houston would host sixth-seeded Oklahoma City.
The Harden vs. Russell Westbrook matchup would be great for TV and basketball fans, but Houston’s depth makes the Rockets a strong favorite in that potential series.
It’s possible the Grizzlies could run into the Rockets in the first round, but Memphis’ offense would be unlikely to keep up with Houston’s pace of play.
The NBA playoffs have taught us to never say never, but if we operate under the premise that Houston and San Antonio meet in the conference semifinals, there’s a lot to like about how the Rockets match up.
Western Conference Semifinals
Ariza can try to do a serviceable job of defending Kawhi Leonard. It won’t be easy, but he has a better shot at keeping Leonard from taking games over than most.
Leonard would be matched up on Harden… How’s that for a great duel?
Tony Parker/Patty Mills/Dejounte Murray will likely be guarded by Beverly the majority of the time.
If Aldridge does not return, obviously that’s a huge hole for the Spurs, and along with San Antonio missing a star player at that position, Anderson’s defensive deficiencies will not be exposed as much.
The Spurs still have a deep roster and Gregg Popovich will probably figure out a way to cope with Aldridge’s absence if that does indeed happen, but Houston’s arsenal of shooters and its uptempo offense could turn out to be too much for a short-handed Spurs team.
Do we really expect Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobli, and David Lee to keep up in the track meet?
Even at full strength, the Spurs wouldn’t be expected to run away with the series and based on the way Harden’s playing, it’s unlikely that even Leonard would “shut him down.”
Operating under the premise that Houston advances to face the Warriors, it’s a situation where there are some favorable matchups for the Rockets.
Western Conference Finals
Guarding Harden will be especially difficult for the Warriors. Andre Iguodala might be able to do the best one-on-one job of anyone on the roster, but he’s no more athletic and agile than he was two years ago when he won Finals MVP for his performance on LeBron James.
The Warriors can load up on Harden, and leave Houston’s shooters open to take advantage. Williams, Gordon and Anderson could have some big opportunities if Golden State decides to over-help on Harden.
Any of those three are capable of scoring 25 on any given night – possibly all on the same night. It may turn out to be a case of pick your poison for the Warriors… Take a chance on letting the role players go off? Or allow Harden to have his way?
Golden State doesn’t have an inside presence like Capela and Nene, but Draymond Green can match up with whoever is down there if need be.
Beverly, who has given Steph Curry problems before, would be a prime candidate to try to contain him from taking over games.
Ariza on Durant would be an interesting matchup and probably will come down to how close Durant is to 100 percent after the injury.
Will the Rockets be favorites in this series? Probably not, but as we saw with the Thunder and Cavs in their 2016 Playoff runs, the matchups often turn out to be a bigger problem than the all-around talent-levels of the teams.
This may not come to fruition. The “smart money” is on Golden State winning the West. It was also on them winning the Finals in 2016, but that’s another story.
But let’s envision what a Cavs-Rockets Finals would look like.
Beverly would match up with Kyrie Irving. Again, that’s a player who could make life difficult for the 25-year-old. He’d probably do a better job defensively on Irving than any of Golden State’s options.
Ariza would match up with LeBron James. They’re both over the age of 30 now, but have had some competitive battles throughout their careers. We all know LeBron in Finals Mode is a different level player altogether, but aside from Leonard, there’s a short list of small forwards in the West who could at least challenge the four-time MVP as much as Ariza.
LeBron and Kyrie would still get their points, but it’s tough to envision them both going off for close to 40 points on the same night like they did against Golden State in Game 5.
As for Harden, what player on the Cavs would guard him? Are we confident J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert would be up to the task? LeBron would probably take a personal point of pride at various times to match up on him, but more often than not, Harden would probably get his points, whether it’s through getting to the foul line, pulling up for long-range jumpers, or dazzling his way through the lane.
If the Cavs over-help on Harden, much like teams do to them with LeBron, he can kick it out to his shooters for good looks. That’s a big reason why he leads the league in assists this season.
Maybe the Cavs’ defensive struggles in 2016-17 are more related to lack of effort, but there’s not much evidence to say the Cavs are going to turn into a lock down defensive team in the playoffs. Getting into track meets or 3-point shootouts with the Rockets wouldn’t seem like a great game plan.
The matchup between Anderson and Kevin Love would be interesting to say the least… Two stretch fours who can shoot the lights out and both have their issues on defense.
As deep as Cleveland’s roster has become and despite how strong of a three-point shooting arsenal the Cavs have, the Rockets would probably love to bait the Cavs into playing their style of game.
As we saw even in a regular season matchup (for what that game was worth), when LeBron worked inside and went to the hoop strong, Houston had its biggest problems of the night. It opened up the floor for other shooters to get good looks.
The times when the Cavs settled for jumpers, Houston took advantage, getting down the floor quickly into their offense, and throwing up rapid three’s.
The Rockets out-hustled their way for offensive rebounds and took advantage of second and third chances. It’s safe to say the Cavs won’t allow as many of those offensive boards, but those long rebounds are a result of all the three’s Houston attempts.
Granted, Love was not out there, but it’s still a recipe for success that Houston has used to get this far in a much more competitive Western Conference.
Just like the previous round of the playoffs, Houston would be the underdog in that series, but that doesn’t mean the Rockets should be underestimated or taken lightly. They’ve been thriving on that all year.
Maybe you’re of the opinion that the Rockets won’t even get out of the second round. But the same people who think that way are probably just now starting to catch on that this Rockets’ team is not one to be overlooked.
Golden State could very well win the West. Their level of talent might be enough to propel the team to the top, but given the bumps in the road they’ve suffered (Durant’s injury), the question marks about how the chemistry will be down the stretch in playoff games, and yes, the mental fortitude of the team, don’t rule out a similar collapse to what happened last year, only one round earlier.
It may take a special kind of player with a mental edge and toughness to single-handedly will his team past juggernauts in make-or-break situations. Harden appears to have that capacity and fearlessness to go right at the NBA’s upper echelon.