As CP3 Fades into Reduced Role, James Harden Jolts Rockets Back to Life

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 11:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets reacts after a three point shot in the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Toyota Center on December 11, 2018 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Nothing has gone as planned for the Houston Rockets this season.

They're not the same team that rattled off an NBA-best 65 wins last year, the team that led the league in three-pointers made per game (15.3), or the team that had the highest offensive rating (114) and was seventh in defensive efficiency (105.6). 

And, perhaps most overlooked of all the issues, star point guard Chris Paul has been a shell of himself. 

Forget challenging the Golden State Warriors. If the season ended now, the Rockets (13-14), 13th in the Western Conference, wouldn't even be near the playoffs.

"We're in a hole right now," James Harden said. "And we've got to find a way to get out of this hole, and we will."

In most of the 27 games Houston has played, the team has appeared out of sync on both ends.

"Sometimes things go bad against you, and then you say, 'OK'; then go to the next game," head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Last year, when something went bad, we always said, 'So what, what's next?' We didn't really do that this year. When something bad seeps into your psyche, you just play bad."

But with a 126-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers—a second win in a row over a quality teamthe Rockets may be close to reclaiming their identity.

"The biggest thing is the guys just had enough of losing," D'Antoni said.

Houston has its eyes on a resurrection, and the jumping-off point could be the thunderous left-handed slam dunk from Harden over Lakers center Javale McGee in the first quarter.

It was jolting, it was highlight-reel worthybut most of all, it was a statement. The league's Most Valuable Player had had enough.

With the Rockets up 8-6 with 9:10 left in the first, Harden got the ball from Eric Gordon at the top of the key, jab-stepped twice and then blew past Lonzo Ball into the lane and tattooed the rim to cap off a 10-2 Houston run.

What followed was an uncharacteristic mean-mugging and flex session that signaled what was to come: a 50-point triple-double (50 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) and a message that the Rockets are on a mission to get their swagger back.

It's a tall order, but Harden has been pushing his teammates to persevere since Houston let the game against the Dallas Mavericks slip away last weekend behind rookie Luka Doncic's 11-point outburst late in the fourth quarter.

Harden called for a two-hour practice session before Houston beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-104 at home.

"I've been telling them to keep going, keep our pace," Harden said. "We've been feeling really good. It doesn't look like it because of our record, but we've been feeling good at times; we've been feeling great. So we have to find a way to keep that going. These two games we've done a great job. We just have to keep it up."

The Rockets' two-game winning streak is nothing compared to the 17 straight they racked up last year, but it's a bright spot for a team desperate to prove it is still elite.

Three things in particular have hurt Houston: the failed Carmelo Anthony experiment, the inconsistent acclimation of new players and losing two key defenders.

Trevor Ariza has one foot out the door in Phoenix, and Luc Mbah a Moute has failed to launch in his second stint with the Los Angeles Clippers because of left knee soreness.

"I think the style that they play defensively, I think it worked better for them last year," Damian Lillard told B/R earlier this week after Portland's loss to Houston. "They don't have the same personnel, so I think it's not the same. Then offensively, it's kind of the same thing.

"Last year, it was Ariza out there making shots, and Mbah was out there slashing, and they were vets in the league, making the right cuts and making the right basketball plays. You lose a lot when you lose two valuable veterans."

Numbers don't lie. The Rockets have the second-worst defensive rating (112.4) and the second-slowest pace (96.7), and they give up 51 points per night in the paint (sixth-worst).

They have 14 losses, three fewer than they logged all of last season.

"Winning's hard in this league," D'Antoni said. "You have to play hard, and we didn't. It was too uneven before. It's better now, but again, we've been here before, so we'll keep our perspective. The last three games we've played well. We just have to keep it there. If we play the right way, with the energy and the chemistry and doing what we talked about, wins will take care of themselves."

What makes the Rockets' latest two victories different is the subtle adjustment in offensive schematics.

Whether it's scoring or setting up the offense, the ball has been in Harden's hands down the stretch instead of volleying back and forth between his and CP3's.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In the previous 25 games, Paul has led the team in percentage of assists, with 53.2 versus Harden's 52.1. In the last pair of matchups, Harden overtook Paul, with 57.7 versus 48.7.

In percentage of points, Harden led with 37.1 percent versus Paul's 22.5. In the last two contests, he separated himself from Paul, going up to 47 percent versus his backcourt mate's 14.4.

It may be by design or by chance, but Paul's role was minimized this week.

"It could be just a matter of [James] feeling really good or he's cooking," D'Antoni said. "That's what makes Chris special...because he goes, 'Here, James, you're rolling like crazy.' And I think James does the same thing for Chris. Chris has it going, and [James] gives it to Chris. So we have to have that type of relationship between the two of them to be successful. We were last year, and I think we'll do it again."

Harden's late-game heroics notwithstanding, Houston won't be able to turn things around without a strong showing from Paul. He's averaging 16.3 points per game, his lowest since 2010-11, and is the third-leading scorer on the team behind Harden's 30.8 and Clint Capela's 17.4.

Paul has to up his output and move back to the secondary scorer spot. Last season, the Rockets were 22-2 when Paul scored 20 or more.

"Me and Chris are the leaders," Harden said. "We have to go out there and play well and put ourselves in position every single night. That's what we have on the line."

Houston is also on the line for the moves it makes on or after Dec. 15. The Phoenix Suns are dangling Ariza in trade talks, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, but it looks like he may be headed back to L.A.

Since Ariza is a nonstarter, the Rockets are rumored to have eyes for JR Smith, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein. The 33-year old guard is on the downside of his career but could still be an asset because he's a volume three-point shooter.

Smith may be infamous for his late-game blunder in Game 1 of the last year's Finals, but he's a proven shot-maker in the playoffs. If the Rockets can get him for the right price, he could be a great pickup.

"We all know he's a good shooter and all that," Gordon said. "But no matter who we bring in here, we have to really focus on the guys that are here, because not too many guys can just come in here and just change the way we play.

"We already got a lot of good guys here. But JR Smith is a good player, a good shooter, and then he's won a championship. And you're catching him at a mature stage in his career, so it just depends on what the front office does in that situation."

Smith may or may not be the answer for what has ailed the Rockets, but he's not on the team, so Houston has to focus on the players it has, including newcomer Danuel House Jr. In nine games, the 25-year old is averaging 8.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest.

"Those guys have been playing well," Harden said of the Rockets' bench mob. "They come out, give energy, play good defense and make big shots, and they've been doing that, especially Danuel. He's been thrown in the fire, and he's done an unbelievable job, and now he's playing big minutes for us."

D'Antoni's tinkering with various lineups—and Nene's return to action—has yielded a productive bench, and now the Rockets are on a roll and plan on continuing the trend.

"It was good to win, but we got a lot more work to do," Paul said. "We got a lot of ground to gain, so we'll enjoy this, get back to work and keep fighting."

      

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.

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