Austin Rivers: Rockets Can Win NBA Title If We Play Up to Defensive Potential

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorMarch 29, 2019

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray (27) has his shot blocked by Houston Rockets' Austin Rivers, right, as Nene Hilario (42) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets dominated the Denver Nuggets on both ends during their 112-85 win over the Western Conference's second-place team on Thursday.

After the game, Rockets guard Austin Rivers expressed confidence that his team can win the NBA Finals if that effort is duplicated in the postseason.

"If we play defense like that, we can win the title," Rivers told reporters. "That's what we believe around here."

Per Royce Young of ESPN.com, Rockets guard James Harden believes that performance can be replicated.

"It's not difficult, it's not difficult at all," Harden said. "I think since the break we've been top five in defensive. We have the ability to do it. We just have to do it."

Per NBA.com, Houston is second in the league in defensive rating since the All-Star break. The Rockets are one of three teams in the top six in offensive and defensive efficiency since the break, with the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz being the others.

That could go a long way toward an NBA Finals run, and the same goes for the Rockets' scorching-hot stretch since an 11-14 start.

Houston has gone 37-14 since then, with Harden's explosive scoring performances acting as catalysts. However, the defense's improvement has been a significant factor, one that was key when the 65-17 Rockets were one win away from making the NBA Finals. That team was No. 7 in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.

The standings and schedule are also breaking in the Rockets' favor. Houston is just percentage points behind the Portland Trail Blazers for third place and has home games versus the last-place New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns on the ledger. Portland has a tougher finish, with a home-and-home series with the Nuggets acting as the most difficult matchups.

If the Rockets jump into third and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors maintain their hold on first in the West, Houston can avoid the NBA championship favorite until the conference finals like last year. That could go a long way toward an NBA Finals win coming to fruition.

The Rockets will now face the 37-38 Sacramento Kings in a home-and-home series. The first game is in Houston on Saturday.