After watching the Rockets win their 5th straight against my beloved Boston Celtics, it made me start to wonder if perhaps the entire internet and all the talking heads owe the Rockets an apology. I get it, you hate their style of play, their fans can be annoying on Twitter and complain about everything (just like every other fanbase), and they've had a history of coming up short on the biggest stage so far during the James Harden era. But here's what's also true. We've all been pretty much dead wrong about them since the summer. Remember when they first traded for Russell Westbrook? Every take was how there was no way it was going to work given how each guy played. Two ball dominant players could no co-exist, right? Well....wrong. Now this isn't to say it was all roses right away, like most teams that have a massive change like this, it took some time for them to work out their kinks, especially on the defensive end.
But almost right away this team proved to be one of the best offenses in the league (top 3 through the first two months) and that pretty much stayed the same all the way to the All Star break. They headed into the break at 32-18 which was tied for the 8th most wins in the NBA (4th in West), and had the 3rd best offense paired with the 15th best defense. They've had their rough patches during the year like pretty much every other contending team outside of MIL but the idea that Harden and Westbrook couldn't co-exist was mostly put to bed. Through the first half of the season Harden was at 35.8/6.5/7.3 on 43/36% splits and Westbrook 26.4/8.0/7.4 on 45/23%.
Then came the trade deadline and once again the general public shit all over what the Rockets were doing. Trading Clint Capela and adopting this uber small ball lineup? That'll never work they said! But just like we were wrong about this pairing at the start of the year, we're wrong about this as well. This is why Daryl Morey is smarter than everyone else on Twitter. He saw a way to get even MORE out of his two best players and make them truly tough to guard when an opponent is spread out like this. We hated it because it was unorthodox, just like we hated what GS did back when we had never really seen that before. But here's what has happened since they went to this approach around the end of January
Record: 10-2 (tied for 2nd in NBA)
Ortg: 116.7 (3rd)
Drtg: 109.2 (8th)
Net Rating: +7.5 (2nd)
That record looks even better if Bojan Bogdanovic doesn't hit a prayer 35 footer game winner. Of those 10 wins, 6 of them have come against playoff teams, and when you check in on Harden/Westbrook now this is what you see
Russell Westbrook: 33.2/7.1/6.3 on 53.9/38%
James Harden: 32.2/7.3/7.9 on 45/38%
Their two best players have gone up a level. Russell Westbrook has pretty much completely eliminated three point shooting from his offense and instead scores more points in the paint than basically anyone
He has changed his game in a way many people thought he never would. Dare I say he's taking…..good shots? Their offense is becoming more efficient, their defense has become a top 10 defense since this new strategy, and they are beating quality opponents both at home and on the road. If this were happening with any other team, wouldn't the buzz around them be positive heading into the playoffs that they could be a real threat? Instead, I still feel like there's this stance of like "well there's no way this works in the playoffs when things slow down". My question is, who is to say? It's not like the Rockets are playing this super fast pace or anything. You don't hear the same thing about the Bucks or Lakers being impacted when things slow down in the postseason and both of those teams play at a faster pace than these new look Rockets.
Let's just say they finish at the 4 spot and have to play UTA in Round 1. Are we sure Gobert is even going to be able to stay on the floor? Those two teams have played 3 times since January 27th, the Rockets are 2-1 and Gobert has basically been a non factor in all three. Their next date would be with the Lakers, a team with legit size there's no two ways about it. But at the same time these new look Rockets already beat the Lakers and how can we say with certainty that the Lakers shooting will show up in a playoff series? It's not like Anthony Davis has a great playoff track record. They are just as unproven as these Rockets are outside of LeBron.
These new look Rockets are tied with the Bucks for the longest active winning streak at 6. They are 8-2 over their last 10 and are just 1.5 games out of the 2 seed. You look at all the teams out West that people consider contenders, the Lakers, the Nuggets, the Clippers etc, and in my opinion all of them have just as many playoff questions as the Rockets. Just because Houston is doing something that we really haven't seen before doesn't mean you should just dismiss them. So far we've all been wrong (outside of HOU fans) as to how good this team could be, if Harden/Westbrook could coexist with one ball, and if their style could work. But everything we are seeing over the last month or so tells you this team absolutely needs to be taken as seriously as any top 4 team out West, if not higher.
You may hate how they play. You may hate the flopping from Harden or the bitching about fouls. But it's time to admit that Morey was right and we were wrong. Obviously this will all come down to their postseason success, but there's no reason to think they don't have as good a shot as any West contender. Success in the playoffs usually comes down to the performance from wings as opposed to bigs anyway, and with the combination of wings that the Rockets can throw out at you, I'd argue maybe they are a team that is actually built to succeed in the playoffs.