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  • The Rockets have surged since a nightmarish start to the season. With Chris Paul and Clint Capela healthy, Houston has reasserted itself in the Western Conference playoff race.
By Michael Shapiro
March 05, 2019

It’s hard to find a more significant turnaround over the last three months than what we’ve seen from the Rockets since their nadir in early December. Houston dropped to 11–14 after blowing an eight-point lead to Dallas with under three minutes remaining on Dec. 8, limping off the floor at the American Airlines Center in Dallas following a pair of late buckets from Luka Doncic. Houston’s 25-game stretch to open 2018-19 marked a complete reversal from last year’s 65-win squad, and as James Harden and Co. sank to 14th in the West, the whispers began; was last year Houston’s lone chance at a Finals berth?

The concerns quieted as the calendar turned to 2019, and they should be muted after Houston’s blistering past month. The Rockets are 8–3 since Feb. 4 and winners of their last five, including road victories at Golden State and at Boston. They’re 27–11 following their defeat against Dallas, good for a 58-win pace. Order has been restored in Lone Star State.

It’s easy to attribute much of Houston’s in-season improvement to Harden. He’s making a strong case for a second-straight MVP, averaging an obscene 40.6 points per game after Dec. 8. Harden’s most recent 11-game stretch entering Tuesday night includes six 40-point efforts and one 58-point explosion against Miami. Steph Curry, Paul George and Anthony Davis are the only other players with six 40-point games this season.

But Harden’s recent brilliance isn’t a drastic improvement compared to his play before Houston's loss at Dallas. Harden’s first 25 games were a near replica of his MVP campaign last season. The Beard averaged 30 points and 8.3 assists per game from Houston's season opener through Dec. 8, shooting 37% from beyond the arc. He ended 2017-18 at 30.4 points and 8.8 dimes per game while shooting 36.4% from three. Harden was still near his peak form in the first 25 games, leaving a different culprit for Houston’s woes.

The crumbling of Houston’s supporting cast proved to be its downfall to start the season. Impactful Wings Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute chased additional dollars in free agency and left last year’s 67-win team in July, yet a significant segment of last year’s core remained intact entering opening night. Houston went 50–5 with Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela on the floor in 2017-18, and the Rockets also brought back P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green. So with largely the same roster returning, who held responsibility for the Rockets early decline? Look no further than Harden’s co-star.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Paul was magnificent in his first year with the Rockets, carrying second units in an exaggerated minutes split with Harden. Harden and Gordon were the NBA’s top pairing in net rating at plus-18, with the Paul-Tucker pairing checking in at No. 3. Paul ended 2017-18 with the second-best net rating of his career and his best effective field goal percentage. He closed out Utah with 40 points in the West semifinals, then poured in 27 points as Houston tied the West Finals 2–2 against Golden State. The nine-time All-Star was a perfect running mate with Harden, and looked primed to dethrone Golden State as the Rockets sprinted within one game of the Finals.

We know the story from there. Paul strained his hamstring in the waning moments of Game 5, then missed Game 6 and Game 7 as the Rockets blew a pair of halftime leads. Paul looked like a relative shell of himself as November approached, struggling mightily before a 17-game absence from late December through the end of January. CP3 averaged a career-low 15.6 points per game prior to leaving the Rockets' lineup on Dec. 20. He shot just 41.5% from the floor, which was a 4.5% drop from his 2017-18 clip. He had limited burst to the rim and shied away from contact in the paint. Paul's jumper was shaky, and he was a significant step below his nine-time All-Defense reputation on the opposite end. A stint on the sidelines was necessary.

Paul has been impressive after returning from injury, fueling Houston’s strong February. Paul is up to 17.8 points and 9.4 assists since Feb. 4. He tallied 23 points and 17 rebounds in Houston’s win at Golden State on Feb. 23, carrying the load as Harden nursed an illness. Paul now looks ready for a deep playoff run following a nightmarish first half.

We shouldn’t discount the subtractions from Houston’s supporting cast, especially on the defensive end. The Rockets are No. 25 in defensive rating this year after ranking No. 6 last season, though they’re closer to league average over the last month. Improved health from Paul and Capela should help on that end, and Tucker will likely average 40-plus minutes per game in the postseason. It will take another monumental defensive effort to take down the Warriors’ dynasty.

Three months has made a world of difference in Houston, and while the defensive questions will linger through April and May, the Rockets have reasserted themselves as the premier competition to Golden State in the West. Paul is healthy and Harden continues to go nuclear. Midseason tinkering has restored the Rockets’ depth. Tucker remains one of the league’s most versatile role players, and Gordon’s shot has rebounded after a shaky start. A showdown with Golden State looms, and the Warriors should be prepared for a grueling rematch before the Finals at Oracle Arena.

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