The Houston Rockets weren't supposed to look this good, this quickly.
Against the Golden State Warriors, they were a dominant force on both ends of the court, storming out to an early advantage and leading 31-12 after the first quarter. It got worse for the Dubs, who were down by 25 points when James Harden left the game with what looked like an injury near the end of the third quarter.
Fortunately, the bearded shooting guard just needed a breather. He'd re-enter the game and continue raining shots through the hoop en route to a game-high 34 points.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Rockets moved to 14-7, good enough to leave them right in the middle of the Western Conference's playoff picture. But while Houston still trails a few teams in the standings—including the where-did-they-come-from Portland Trail Blazers and how-are-they-always-here San Antonio Spurs—the success of general manager Daryl Morey's vision should be starting to scare everyone.
When Dwight Howard was recruited to Houston, there were dreams of championships floating through the minds of everyone in the Rockets organization. The combination of D12 and Harden would certainly lead to an elite offense, and the rim-protecting abilities of a healthy Howard would surely result in a top-notch defense.
Half of that was true leading into the game against Golden State.
According to Basketball-Reference, only the Blazers boasted a better offensive rating, as the Rockets were scoring 110.6 points per 100 possessions. But "defense" wasn't always in the team's vocabulary, and its defensive rating left Houston all the way down at No. 14.
Mediocre? Sure, but that wasn't exactly the goal of these supposed contenders.
But when the Dubs entered the Toyota Center on Friday, everything clicked. All of a sudden—admittedly a one-game sample size against a team that was missing Andre Iguodala—the defense and offense both looked like dominant forces.
When it came to scoring points, everything revolved around Harden, who scored his 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field and a 7-of-9 performance at the charity stripe. Free to handle the ball as much as he pleased, the bearded 2-guard produced plays like this:
On top of that, the Rockets thrived in transition, putting together a trifecta of highlights that showed off the phenomenal passing and finishing abilities of this offensive juggernaut.
First, there was tons of ball movement in the opening quarter:
Then, a beautiful bounce pass in transition from Harden:
Then a tomahawk finish after Chandler Parsons swiped the ball away and threw it downcourt to his bearded teammate:
But none of that should be too surprising.
It was expected that this team would excel in transition and allow Harden to run the show in half-court sets. According to Teamrankings.com, Houston was scoring 15.7 transition points per game, the No. 8 mark in the NBA. And that was before dropping 22 on the move against Golden State.
What was different in this victory was Howard's involvement in the game.
The Rockets outscored the Dubs by 22 points when the big man was on the court, but it wasn't because he was highly involved in the offense. His 22 points came largely at the charity stripe, where he drained 12 of his 20 attempts and staved off the Warriors' "Hack-a-Dwight" strategies in the second half.
Instead of trying to force things into D12, the Rockets instead let him serve as a distraction on many possessions, although he did manage to draw five quick fouls on Andrew Bogut. Even if he's only taking eight shots from the field, he's still going to demand plenty of attention, and that opens up the lanes for Harden and the rest of the offense.
It helped produce a shot chart that looks like this:
Notice the dearth of mid-range attempts?
Rather than getting pushed off line while driving and instead settling for long two-pointers, the Rockets were able to get into the paint and do damage from more efficient areas. It fell in line with their idealistic strategy—one that relies almost solely on shots at the rim and from beyond the three-point arc.
But Howard made an even bigger impact on defense.
Not only did the Dubs shoot a putrid 35.5 percent from the field, but they went 2-of-16 from downtown. Stephen Curry made only one triple, and Klay Thompson put up a rare goose egg in that column of the stat sheet.
It was a concerted effort, according to Harden. The shooting guard spoke to Rockets.com's Jason Friedman after the game, saying the following about the less-glamorous end of the court:
We had to win a game. We lost two games we should have won so it was time to come home and find a way to win and we did it on the defensive end tonight.
(I) locked in and stayed focused. All the time I was out there, knowing my principles and what I needed to do and who I was guarding and helping my teammates. I think all the guys did the same.
This wasn't lost on anyone.
Because Howard was playing defense like vintage D12 and deterring the Warriors from taking and making shots around the basket while helping shut down Bogut and David Lee, the rest of the Rockets could place more of an emphasis on shutting down the perimeter.
They forced bad attempts from downtown and funneled Golden State's perimeter players into the mid-range zones. As the Houston Chronicle wrote:
The more significant improvement, however, was in the defensive intensity, not only keeping the Warriors on the perimeter—they scored just 14 points in the paint in the first half—but allowing Howard to stay in position to clean the glass, rather than to help cover up dribble penetration.
Again, that falls in line with their idealistic strategy.
There's no doubt that this was a fantastic performance for the Western Conference contenders, but there's still a reason we can't say Morey's plan is being followed to a "T." It's almost unfolding exactly as the general manager envisioned when he put together this roster.
It's worth noting that both Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik were out, and the return of those two players only complicates things.
Lin has undoubtedly been a positive for Houston, averaging 15.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, but when he's back, the forward rotation has to be more shallow to compensate for the minutes he receives. With Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia all looking solid, that could potentially become problematic.
The return of the Turkish big man is more complicated, though.
As reported by ESPN's Marc Stein, the team is making a concerted effort to trade Asik by Dec. 19. If he wasn't happy before, he certainly won't be now that there's no doubt he's on the block.
The uncertainty surrounding those two players—both Lin's impact on the rotation and Asik's happiness/the effect on chemistry of any player who comes to Houston in a trade—is the only thing keeping Morey's vision from looking perfect.
After the game, Howard told Friedman, "We've got to bring that intensity and effort every single night for us to win."
Even with some missing pieces that could complicate the puzzle in Houston, D12 is exactly right. As long as the Rockets do buckle down on defense and let the offensive system fall into place, they can beat anyone.
At the end of the day, that's what Morey's vision was all about.
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