- Last night we got our first glimpse of the new Rockets, who pulled out a surprise win over the Warriors on openinig night.
An NBA team’s first game of the season is a hint. It’s the smell that first hits you when you walk into a restaurant. It’s the dabbling pilot of a television show. Intrigue is as far as it takes you, and honestly, anything north of off-putting is a positive in its own right.
For the Rockets—a team of fundamentally new construction—to even hang with the Warriors in their first game out certainly qualifies. Houston took things a step further with a 122–121 win, outscoring the defending champs 34–20 in the fourth quarter after plugging away all game long. It was a remarkable showing from a team that is so clearly unfinished.
Thus far, the union of James Harden and Chris Paul is all seams; their basketball interaction in this first game rarely went further than taking turns. This is to be expected. Harden can always fall back on the comforts of last year’s success within a system he knows well. Mike D’Antoni’s offense is driven by its guiding principles. This is the how you attack. This is where you run. None of that has changed, and most of Houston’s roster makes organic sense within those guidelines.
Paul faces a different kind of learning curve. His aptitude is obvious. Even when he wasn’t in control of a possession, Paul worked to direct traffic, calling up screeners and shouting away clutter. The geometry of spacing is not foreign to him in the slightest. What he lacks, for now, is the familiarity that really puts his vision into practice. Once Paul has a solid grasp of how the players around him move, the floor should open up even more. It might help, too, if Paul had two good legs to work with. Mike D’Antoni pulled his hall-of-fame point guard off the floor in crunch time as the hitch in his step became more pronounced. You knew Paul’s body wasn’t cooperating when he began to defer on switches, forgoing his favorite pastime: playing mind games with in-over-their-head centers.
Still Paul notched 11 assists for the night, a mark that the entirety of the non-Harden Rockets generally reach only once or twice a season. His defense was crucial in keeping Stephen Curry out of rhythm. His eight rebounds tied a team high, and in the game overall only Draymond Green collected more. Paul would be the first to tell you that he could do better, and yet still he helped key an offense that yielded a sizzling 121 points per 100 possessions. Houston spent every minute of this game with either Paul or Harden on the floor. As a result, they were able to put unceasing pressure on the Warriors—pressure that tipped in their favor with Curry’s foul trouble and Green’s early exit.
The case for the Rockets as Western Conference challengers is predicated on how they might sustain. One of the best playmakers in the league will be on the floor at all times. He’ll be supported by another creator, be it a superstar peer or the impressively spry Eric Gordon. In support is a fluid frontcourt rotation: Clint Capela or Nene (who did not appear) for when the Rockets need a conventional big, some combination of Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for when they do not.
Tucker and Anderson tried their hand as nominal centers in the opener to impressive effect. Mbah a Moute, largely a defensive specialist, looked more dynamic than could have been reasonably thought possible. Houston can’t count on a combined 34-point windfall from Tucker and Mbah a Moute every night, but if they can manage to get their transition defense in order, their rotation might at least be pliable enough to scramble some of what the Warriors do well.
That’s the evaluative measure that matters most. Health permitting—a caveat with stomach-turning weight in light of Gordon Hayward’s injury on Tuesday night—this Rockets team could challenge for 60 wins. The regular season is an important exercise, but an exercise all the same. What success Golden State had in periodically slowing Houston will not be viable for the vast majority of teams. They’ll be left to solve one of the most relentless and best-spaced offenses in existence, knowing full well that Paul’s arrival leaves them so little room for error.