It may have taken a 141-day break, but the Rockets will return to the floor on Friday night to complete a season that was previously very much in doubt. And as the season resumes, the Rockets have at least a fringe chance at the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
It will be a difficult road to the Finals in Orlando. The Rockets will likely receive at least some semblance of a challenge in round one, and they will then presumably have to knock off both Los Angeles teams in order to even survive the Western Conference. Defeating one of the Lakers or Clippers would mark a sizable upset. Knocking off both may require a minor miracle.
Houston at least has the firepower to conceivably knock off the West's top teams, which can't quite be said for Utah, Denver or Oklahoma City. And for the Rockets to pull off an upset, they'll likely need both MVPs near their peak form. Perhaps Houston can survive a middling series from Russell Westbrook. That leeway doesn't apply to James Harden. He remains the true focal point of the Rockets' offense, especially in the half court. When the game slows down in Orlando, Harden will be counted on to deliver.
The slate of scrimmages should be taken with a grain of salt, though Harden certainly looked ready to chase the title in his first appearances in Orlando. The 2017-18 MVP averaged 30 points per game on 50% shooting, canning 13 threes in his final two exhibition contests. Harden spent the COVID-19 hiatus with an eye on the Finals. He appears fully confident entering the season's resumption.
"We’re bringing [the title] back to H-Town," Harden told the media on Thursday. "We’ve come up short these last few years, but this is another opportunity for us to fight for it, to get after it again. We got some grinding to do, some work to do. But the goal is to bring it back to H-Town."
Asking Harden to dethrone the Lakers and Clippers is certainly a tall order. Both Los Angeles squads have dynamic duos that can certainly rival (if not surpass) the Rockets, and the both teams sport additional advantages. LeBron and the Lakers are the NBA's relative Goliaths, sporting a super-sized front line. Kawhi and the Clippers may have the deepest rotation in basketball. The Western Conference remains a gauntlet even after Golden State's dynasty dissipated.
But there may be some reason for optimism. Harden has displayed stretches of otherworldly play throughout his career, including the start of 2019-20. Harden averaged 38.6 points per game in his first 30 contests this year. He's dropped 47 on the Clippers in November, then scored 37 in a rematch just over a week later. Both Los Angeles teams are relative juggernauts, though they're not completely invulnerable. Harden could be regarded as the game's best player in October if he leads the Rockets to a surprise Finals run. The possibility can't be completely discounted.
Harden will begin his quest to win the Western Conference on Friday night as the Rockets face Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. Tip-off is slated for 8 p.m. CT.