When Mike D’Antoni was named as the head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2016, it was an interesting pairing to say the least. D’Antoni is known for his wide-open offense that can put up points in bunches. D’Antoni had success with this system as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns when he led them to consecutive appearances in the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006. However the downside of D’Antoni’s system is that when everyone is not on the same page, things can be bad which best sums up his respective tenures as the head coach of the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
Upon taking over the Rockets, D’Antoni made a bold and surprising move when he decided to make James Harden the team’s starting point guard. Harden has always been a top notch scorer, but prior to last season he did it as a shooting guard. Now under D’Antoni, Harden would be charged more with getting his teammates involved, while also being a deadly scoring threat. And although that I believed that it would not work, Harden has taken his game to the next level under D’Antoni.
Last season Harden averaged career-highs in points (29.1), assists (11.2), and rebounds (8.1), as it took Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook to average a triple-double for the entire season to prevent Harden from being named as the NBA’s MVP. With Harden leading the way, the Rockets won 55 games as they made the Western Conference Semifinals.
This season the Rockets have gotten better which has led the good folks of Texas to think about this team winning their first NBA Championship since 1995. Last summer saw the Rockets acquired point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets gave up a king’s ransom to get Paul as they parted with seven players and a first-round pick in order to obtain the services of the nine-time NBA All-Star, but it has been well worth it as he has given Houston another quality ball handler, while he and Harden have formed one of the better back courts in the league.
Harden’s assists numbers have dipped, but only slightly as he is averaging 9 per game which is understandable due to fact that he is playing alongside Paul. However Harden is averaging a career-high in points with 31.3 per game. Harden has scored at least 40 points in a game eight times this year which was highlighted by him going for 60 points versus the Orlando Magic on January 30. And it is stealing to have one of the game’s best scorers in Harden playing for D’Antoni as his shooting ability would defeat anyone in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
Paul is not that shabby as well as he’s averaging 19.2 and 8.3 assists. And when you put it all together, Harden and Paul are averaging more than 17 assists per contest as they are indeed double trouble when it comes to dishing out the rock.
The Rockets have truly benefited from this as their record of 44-13 is the best in the NBA. The Rockets finished the first half of the NBA season by winning their last 10 games which allowed them to overtake the Golden State Warriors for the best record as the two teams appear to be on a collision course to meet in the Western Conference Finals.
The Rockets faced the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in 2015, but it was a mismatch as soon as the ball went into the air for Game 1 as Golden State easily knocked off the Rockets in five games. The Rockets weren’t equipped to hang with the Warriors, but this time around they are hopeful that their chances have improved.
In 2015, the Warriors only had to zero in on slowing down Harden as he was the central nervous system of the Rockets offense. D’Antoni was not the head coach of that team either, and his offense is based around a star, but it also specializes in getting all players open shots. At 114.1 points per contests, the Rockets are second in the NBA to the Warriors in this category which includes seven players averaging at least 10 points per game.
Guard Eric Gordon has been an underrated scorer throughout his 10-year NBA career and he’s once again contributing a very high level as he is averaging 18.5 points per game this season in coming off of the bench for D’Antoni. Like Gordon, forward Trevor Ariza has been underrated throughout his career as his length at 6’8″ always gives opponents problems when he plays defense. The Rockets also made a move that will fly under the radar when they signed veteran swignman Joe Johnson over he was bought out by the Sacramento Kings following his trade there from the Utah Jazz. Johnson is in his 17th NBA season and he had some of his best seasons in the league under D’Antoni when they were together in Phoenix. At the age of 36, Johnson is not the player that he once was, but what he gives the Rockets is another proven veteran scorer coming off of their bench. And we cannot forget about center Clint Capela who aside from averaging 14.4 points per contest is also tied for sixth in the NBA with 11.1 per game. Capela’s ability to clean up on the boards as well as be an intimidator in the paint as he’s averaging 1.8 blocks per contest has improved Houston’s chances this season, but will it be enough to get past the Warriors?
The Rockets are 2-1 versus the Warriors this season, and in a playoff series they will more than likely attempt to outscore Golden State which is a tall task for any squad. The Rockets are 12th in the NBA in points allowed this season at 105.4 per contest and the last thing that they can afford to do is simply take their chances by attempting to outscore Golden State even though that Harden is one of the game’s best scorers. D’Antoni attempted to win with his offense alone when he led the Suns to the Western Conference Finals, and he was rebuffed by the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks who were good defensive teams. And as things are coming together for the Rockets, it is time for Harden to shed his label as a player who cannot get it done in the postseason, while Paul needs to exercise his demons in the playoffs against Curry and Westbrook.
Everything has come together for the Rockets this year as they are on pace for their first Southwest Division Title in three years along with winning 60 games in a season for the first time in franchise as this team has a buzz around it in Houston. The Rockets are always a contender, but opportunities like this don’t come the pike that often. And the biggest thing for Houston right now is that they don’t want to peak too soon as the postseason is where their legacy will be determined.