Chris Paul, who had 28 points, eight assists and seven steals in the win, has been the magic elixir for the Rockets this season. They are a perfect 13-0 with him in the lineup, and the offense has scored at least 105 points in every game of this current 12-game streak. Friday's victory improved their NBA-best record to 23-4.
The Rockets dominated their Western Conference rival despite a lackluster showing from James Harden. Last year's MVP runner-up shot just 33 percent but still finished with 28 points thanks to 14 made free throws.
Little went right for the Spurs. LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard combined for 28 points and 10 rebounds, but no other player in the starting five scored more than four points.
Of the many things that can be said about the Rockets' rise to superpower status, defense is the most important one.
Paul was at the forefront of that defensive effort Friday with seven steals, which moved up him past another NBA legend on the all-time list in that category:
Head coach Mike D'Antoni is renowned for his fast-paced offensive style, but he's found something on the other side of the ball with this Houston team. The Rockets entered Friday's game tied with the Utah Jazz for fifth in defensive efficiency.
The full range of defensive prowess was on display against the Spurs, as Houston forced 17 turnovers and had 15 steals.
Danny Chau of The Ringer heaped praise on the trio of D'Antoni, Paul and associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik as the main reasons for Houston's defensive turnaround:
"Elite defenses have signal-callers on the floor, players who can break down what’s happening and relay necessary information to teammates about what’s about to happen. In Paul, Bzdelik has a player who possesses the kind of militant approach to the game that had been lacking in last season’s squad. And in new additions Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, the Rockets have established a bullpen of interchangeable 3-and-D defenders who can take on almost any assignment given to them."
ESPN's Jorge Sedano offered this take on D'Antoni's influence on Paul:
Houston's offense came along for the party as well against one of the NBA's best defensive teams:
Things are going so well for the Rockets that a 60-43 advantage against the Spurs at halftime didn't have everyone on the team happy:
Paul has been one of the NBA's best point guards throughout his career, but being paired with Harden appears to have given him a new lease on life. The 32-year-old is shooting a career-high 41.8 percent from three-point range.
Beyond simple statistical numbers, Dave DuFour of RealGM noted Paul seems to be in a better place mentally with the Rockets:
There was an early moment in the game involving Harden and Leonard that likely gave The Beard flashbacks to last year's disastrous Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals:
Even though Harden didn't have one of his best games of the season to throw in Leonard's face Friday, he did get the last laugh thanks to the help of his teammates.
Taking a bigger-picture look at how well the partnership between Harden and Paul has worked for the Rockets, Synergy Sports Tech offered this nugget showing how that duo stacks up with the Golden State Warriors' top trio:
As impressive as all the numbers look for the Rockets right now, though, FS1's Skip Bayless addressed the elephant in the room that will haunt this team until it proves otherwise:
That Game 6 in the playoffs last year saw the Spurs go into Houston and embarrass the Rockets 114-75 on their home court. Harden had 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting with six turnovers in 32 minutes.
There was tremendous backlash directed at Harden for that game. Dieter Kurtenbach of Fox Sports called it an "an all-time great choke job."
Paul is also fighting his own history as the best point guard of his generation who has never advanced past the second round in the playoffs.
Nothing that Harden and Paul did Friday was going to erase the memories of that defeat, but the Rockets look like a different team this year than they did in their first season under D'Antoni last year and when they won a combined 110 games under Kevin McHale in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
By contrast, the Spurs have been so great for so long that one loss like this doesn't cause anyone to panic. This was only Leonard's second game of the year, and things should get better for them as he gets back into the swing of things.
The Rockets have something special in place. They will only be judged by what happens in the postseason, but for now, it's hard to argue with the results they are producing.