The Houston Rockets have the firepower on both ends of the floor to give the Golden State Warriors a run for their money come playoff time.
The Golden State Warriors are the most talented and gifted team in the NBA. They’ve made it to the NBA Finals three consecutive years and have come away as champs twice. They possess a formidable big four in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.
And while that star-studded squad is heavy favorites to plow their way to the Finals, yet again, they will, at the very least, finally have some real competition in the Western Conference. And it’s name is the Houston Rockets.
Tuesday night, the NBA season tipped off with two marquee matchups, one being the Warriors versus Rockets. After the Warriors’ never-ending ring ceremony — as if the summer parade wasn’t enough — the Rockets pulled off a stunner victory.
Overcoming a 15-point second-half deficit, James Harden, Chris Paul and the new-look Rockets stole their season opener versus the defending champs, 122-121. And while it was just one game and the Warriors lost on opening night last season, the Rockets are the one team that has an actual chance of giving them a run for their money.
Tuesday night, the Rockets’ collective ability to score the ball was on full display. With Harden dropping a quiet 27, and reserve wings Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute combining for 58 points, the Rockets showed off their ability to score at will. They even did so with Paul contributing just four points and not being on the court in the game’s waning moments.
Acquired in a multi-player deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul provides the Rockets with one of the best point guards of the modern-day era. He’s arguably the best facilitator and true point guard in the league, is a great mid-range shooter and a tenacious defender — skill sets that make for a complete player. Of course playing in Houston, alongside Harden, is going to be a major adjustment for Paul.
In his six-year tenure with the Clippers, Paul played with star forward Blake Griffin. Griffin, a well-rounded and dominant scorer, is one of the better frontline players in the NBA. Based on his ability to score in the paint and from the outside, Paul took a bit of a back seat and helped open things up for Griffin, mostly because he possesses the perfect skill set of Paul’s liking.
Throwing up ally-oops at ease and finding him all over the floor, Paul and Griffin were the perfect one-two punch for the Clippers. But now, Paul has to adjust to playing with a go-to scorer that’s a ball-dominant player in Harden.
While the bearded two guard has posted double digit assists in the past, he ultimately wants the ball in his hands when it matters most, no matter the circumstance, much like Paul. But unlike Harden, Paul has shown the ability to pass up the big shot and share the spotlight. Now paired with one another, Harden and Paul will have to share that spotlight, but Tuesday night they appeared to do so in a way that may limit Paul’s offensive output, but possibly for the better of the Rockets, as a whole, going forward.
Shooting 2-9 from the field, Paul finished the night with just four points, however, dished out 11 assists. If Paul can be that facilitator for Harden and the Rockets, while contributing to the scoring load here and there, he could make them a 60-plus win team. Yes, that sounds insane, but look at this team’s identity.
In today’s NBA, it’s imperative to have a number of wings who can play both ends of the floor. Look at the Warriors. Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green compete on both ends. While they don’t possess the star power, that of Golden State, the Rockets have a number of “three and d”, two-way players.
Starting with their new potential franchise point guard (Paul), the Rockets are a team adept at being competitive on the defensive end. Based on Harden’s limited defensive output, Paul’s presence should be able to assist his game much like Patrick Beverley did in year’s prior — who is one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA.
However, Paul isn’t the only player who can make up for Harden’s flaws. With gritty defenders such as Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza in place, the Rockets have a plethora of wings who can guard the permitter at ease. That trio, more specifically Tucker and Mbah a Moute, have also seen an improvement in their outside shooting game.
Tucker shot 40 percent from beyond the arc after being traded to the Toronto Raptors at the NBA trade deadline. On the other hand, Mbah a Moute shot a career-high 39.1 percent from beyond the arc with the Clippers last season.
To add onto the Rockets’ firepower, they possess one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the NBA in Harden and center Clint Capela — who can finish in the paint and defend the post.
With a number of “three and d” players, a formidable backcourt, a reliable big in the middle, and go-scorers such as Harden and Gordon, the Rockets possess a very talented and dangerous squad. So how do they matchup versus Golden State?
Well, for starters, they beat them Tuesday night in Oracle Arena. That’s a solid start right?
At the end of the day, teams can only hope to contain the Warriors’ prolific offense, no matter how many defenders you have present. What the Warriors have, chemistry wise, is special.
Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, among others, have a knack for finding each other and working off their strengths and weaknesses. With another training camp and offseason under their belts, the Warriors will likely only be better in the 2017-18 season — which is scary to think about. But that doesn’t mean a team cannot give them a run for their money. And if anyone is going to invigorate fear or make the Warriors actually earn their third championship in four years, it’ll be the Rockets.
Allowing 121 points is certainly not an ideal or impressive feat, but as the year progresses, the Rockets will likely establish themselves as one of the better defensive units in the league; there are too many quality defenders on this team to be that bad over the course of an 82-game season. Offensively, they contain a bevy of well-rounded scorers and shooters who can force the issue against the likes of Thompson, Durant and Green. And when you look at other powerhouse, or highly thought of teams going into week one of the regular season, they have some major flaws.
Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers have made it to three consecutive NBA Finals and may very well do so a fourth time this Spring. But just because they’re in the Finals every year doesn’t mean teams excluded from the June festivities aren’t just as good, if not better; the Warriors are just so good that the competition in the Western Conference can go under the radar.
Cleveland is a relatively slow team. They’re deep one through ten in the depth chart, but are, as a whole, not a quick bunch. The addition of Dwyane Wade does not help their efforts in any way, concerning getting quicker. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas (when he returns from his hip injury), J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and company are adept at finding ways to put the ball in the cup, but are not a unit capable of beating others in the fastbreak or shutting down team’s offensive firepower — which spells trouble versus Golden State.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, but as a result, have one of the league’s worst benches; a bench that’s headlined by Alex Abrines and Patrick Patterson is not going to pick up where Russell Westbrook and friends leave things. Plus, George has continued to miss big-time fourth quarter shots (most recently, bricking an open three pointer in the final moments of the Indiana Pacers’ eliminating game four loss to the Cavs last season, where he shot 5-21 from the field). Simultaneously, Anthony has never been a two-way player, nor a third-fiddle offensively — which he will likely be in Loud City. Granite a big three of Westbrook, George and Anthony, complemented by Andre Roberson and Steven Adams is one of the most talented starting fives in the association, they simply don’t have the depth or defensive assets to compete with Golden State.
The Western Conference will be incredibly challenging this year. The Rockets and Thunder have improved, as well as other teams such as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets; it’s all about trying to — somehow — overthrow the Warriors and making blockbuster trades is organization’s attempting to do just that.
But the Rockets are the only team in the West and NBA that can hang with them. The Warriors are and should be favored to win it all, yet again, but Houston is the one team that can, at the very least, invigorate fear and challenge the Warriors in a best of seven set.