In light of turbulent times, the Rockets, perhaps for the first time this season, appear to have achieved liftoff. Houston’s 115-103 win over the Pacers felt monumental, even if it was only a stepping stone.
This season’s Rockets have hardly resembled last season’s squad, a claim made explicit by their 5-7 record. Through the early slate of the campaign, Houston has struggled in several statistical categories it flourished in a season ago, while some of its weaknesses have only been substantiated. Some of the blame has curiously been heaped upon Carmelo Anthony, whose role came in question ahead of Sunday’s game. It was reported by the New York Times’ Marc Stein that Anthony, ruled out Sunday with an illness against the Pacers, had been told his time with Houston was closing. The news prompted general manager Daryl Morey to state that was not the case.
The possibility of Anthony’s premature departure furrowed eyebrows across the league. Per ESPN’s Tim McMahon, Houston players think Anthony won’t play another game in a Rockets uniform. His presence, however, wasn’t and hasn’t been the sole cause for Houston’s cumulative early woes.
Where blame could perhaps more reasonably be assigned for the Rockets’ early struggles entering Sunday resonated with the performance of their stars, James Harden and Chris Paul. Entering Sunday, neither had played at the level that netted the former an NBA MVP Award and the latter a max deal. But with questions surrounding the state of the franchise at such an early juncture in the season, Houston found itself again from the tip.
The Rockets blitzed the Pacers from behind the arc, shooting a cumulative 42.6% from three. Houston exploded for 44 points during the second quarter alone. The Rockets led by as many as 24. After being held to fewer than 90 points in three games entering Sunday, Houston erupted for 115 against an Indiana defense relinquishing the second-fewest points per game (102.1) in the league.
Harden was at the center of it all, appearing as confident as he has all season. He dropped a season-high 40 points (on 9-20 shooting), along with nine assists and seven rebounds. Paul was efficient, pouring in 26 points (on 8-13 shooting). Their movement opened things up for P.J. Tucker, who scored 12 points, all from behind the arc, and Clint Capela, who went 8-for-9 and scored 18 points.
The output Houston managed through three quarters was enough to get it to the finish line Sunday, before it appeared to give way to its recent spell of inconsistent offense exasperated by a tired defense. In some ways, the effort was reminiscent of the team that last postseason came within a game of dethroning the Warriors, and while they’re not back to being that same team, the Rockets had enough to get by on Sunday. The question remains as to whether they continue to play this way or whether they prove those externally questioning the franchise right.