The NBA's coronavirus suspension unfortunately halted one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory, but for the Rockets, a pause in play may have come at the perfect time.
Houston dropped four of its last five games before the COVID-19 hiatus began on March 11, with a trio of losses coming against teams under .500. And the Rockets' performance was even more troubling than the results. Houston loafed through much of March, looking fatigued–and at times disinterested–after an impressive February. As the playoffs loomed, Houston's standing as a title contender was on shaky ground.
James Harden wasn't immune to the Rockets' struggles. His efficiency fell off a cliff in Houston's final 25 games, shooting just 40.2% from the field and 30.9% from three. After a historic start to the season, the 2017-18 MVP fell into an extended (and largely inexplainable) slump. But Houston head coach Mike D'Antoni believes we'll see the best of Harden when the NBA returns on July 31.
"I know from conversations that [Harden is] ready," D'Antoni told the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith. "But he always is. He loves to play. Probably the worst thing you can do is take basketball away from him. He has used this to recharge, to get in better shape and he still always has that incredible fire."
Harden isn't the only Rockets player that could benefit from the NBA's extended layoff. The coronavirus suspension has allowed Eric Gordon to rest his knees after a slate of injuries, and 35-year-old P.J. Tucker has been able to recharge after logging 34.4 minutes per game in 2019-20.
"I'm excited about Eric Gordon getting healthy," D'Antoni said. "[Tucker] maybe recharging. We have a tendency to overwork him, so he's able to recharge and be in great shape."
The Rockets' slide before the COVID-19 suspension has dropped them to No. 6 in the Western Conference, though they could rise in the standings in the final eight games of the regular season. Houston currently sits tied with Oklahoma City and just one game back of Utah at 40–24, while the Nuggets are within reach for the No. 3 seed. Denver is currently 2.5 games ahead of the Rockets.