The Harden is in rhythm to sign the best offensive season in history but the key to their excellence is their change in defense.
The Rockets are an aspiring ring with all the stripes. The Rockets are the best team that has coincided in time with the Steve Kerr Warriors, Cavaliers 2015-2016 included. Those two phrases are true and so is that if the Warriors finally reach the playoffs (they are) with the basic rotation of 8-9 players at 100%, they will be the big favorite and a team capable of venting the Rockets even with certain comfort. And that would not invalidate the previous statements. So let’s say that the Rockets are the test of cotton: they are no better than some Warriors who have the benefit of the doubt but can be better than almost any version of the Warriors that does not come close to the best possible. As anyone will know by now, that’s saying a lot in the NBA over the last four years.
The Rockets also have to prove themselves in the playoffs. For some things or for others, there are narratives that will return to the surface if things do not go as they should: Chris Paul may be the best player in history who has ever set foot in conference finals. It was hardly his fault, but if this is not the year, we will have to start believing in almighty courts. Mike D’Antoni has a rare record in eliminations, from the Suns to the Rockets 2017, and there is a component that goes beyond cabalistic (rotations, management of last minutes …). And James Harden has spent two years taking off the talent gulf sanbenito and unreliable. This seemed to be here to stay in 2016, the year of compilations on YouTube of his defensive chaos, the one in which the corrosion of his relationship with Dwight Howard reduced him to 15 victories (56 to 41) and leads him to the final from the West to the first round (two eliminations followed, by the way, against the Warriors). Harden, who is going to win the MVP that has slipped twice between his fingers, is way above all that. But in May he will be playing hard knock-outs in which the entire offensive arsenal of his team may be compressed again to a handful of his possessions, in one against one, in the last two or three minutes of matches against dog and with minimal gasoline.
D’Antoni as an unexpected solution
After that fiasco of 2016, by the way, Daryl Morey opted for a very devalued D’Antoni after his skids in the Knicks and Lakers with the belief that he is the perfect coach if given certain wicks. If you click. And with stubbornness (which we all appreciate) that these Warriors are not a cut for mediocrity but an invitation to excellence. Morey said when he introduced D’Antoni that they would beat the Warriors by putting more baskets on them, and we all laughed with a certain paternalism. Morey has not stopped tempting all the stars that have been within the radius of action of his franchise and will tempt (some economic formula will find) LeBron James in July. Morey has built the team of the future from its obsession with purging the inefficient shots, erase the average distance and play based on the bombardment of triples and trays under the basket. Morey had a vision and, only he dared to think about it, he went through a coach that had been left to shred his mystique of the Seven Seconds Or Less, the Suns that could be champions and that ended up being (not little) one of the projects most influential and colorful in history. Ask Steve Kerr, who overlapped in the offices with the end of Steve Nash’s supersonic transitions and fire at will on land, sea, and air.
Morey has always come up with ideas (many risky) where others make excuses. And in his obsession to build the nemesis of the Warriors has ended up imitating them. Maybe there is no other way. You know: choose your enemies well because you can end up looking like them. And his enemy is, quite simply, one of the best teams in history. If not the best. Now, almost in April 2018, the Rockets are 57-14, will have field advantage in all the playoffs and have won 27 of the 29 games they have played since the return of James Harden after a muscle injury (January 18) ). The two parties that have lost have been by 3 and 2 points (5 total) and, in total and in an account that has already become recurrent, his balance is 39-2 when Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela have been available.
A revolution in the rear
The attack of the Rockets, from the insertion of Paul to the side of Harden, is for now unsolvable, surrounded by the two creators of open marksmen and with Capela turned into a reliable finalizer near the basket. Their pace of play has been decreasing as they have strengthened their automatisms, and are one of the teams with less agility of possessions ( pace ) of the entire NBA in the last month. Although surprised: they hypnotize more than they run. His attack is on track to be the best in history: 116.1 offensive rating by the 115.6 of the 1986-87 Lakers and the Warriors 2016-17. But, in essence, scoring has never been a problem for the Harden Rockets (it came in 2012, it’s already raining): only in the aforementioned damn course (2014-15), the offensive rating fell below the NBA’s top-7.
No: the problem, the unknown that solved the equation, was the defense. And if the attack does not look too much like the Warriors (mainly) because of the players’ profile, it is in the defense where they have resorted to the libretto of those from the Bay.
When D’Antoni landed in Houston, he claimed the signing of Jeff Bzdelik (65 years old), three decades of experience in NBA and College and the charge of ” re-launching and modernizing ” the team’s defense. Last season, without the right personnel, the Rockets are taking steps in the right direction : in blocks, the best in the league in the defense on the ball in and seconds on the continuation, seconds also that more fouls in attack provoked, third in limiting the success of the opponent from the line of three … Work on the transition (a drama a year before), work on the lines of pressure and first contact with James Harden, who challenged directly: to be the player who could become (that’s what it is) and for the Rockets to be a serious contender (a true contender ), he had to defend better. Since then, there is more bad reputation than reality in its consideration of black hole and there are, of course, compilations on Youtube of the defensive disasters of Harden in the present season.
Bzdelik has become, the simile appears fast, in the Ron Adams of the Warriors. Adams (70) is a counter-thinker in the Kerr organizational chart, a coach with enough reputation to have chosen to be a head coach and, above all, the great defensive brain that turned the Warriors into the mobile wall they have been in the last seasons. To achieve something similar, the Rockets added Chris Paul (seven times First All-Defensive Team ) and, in low profile but fundamental movements, to PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah to Moute. Between the two they charge about 10 million this season and they are, essentially, the players who have transformed the defense of the Rockets, now the tenth best rating of the season, eighth best if measured from the All-Star Weekend (in total, +10.8 of net rating).
With Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Ariza, the Rockets have the versatility, the muscle and the energy to replicate the constant adjustments and changes of the Warriors: attack from the defense, change pairings not by obligation and depending on the attack but as a weapon of anticipation. They are good in one on one, they are good if the opponent leads them to the post, they rebound … and allow combinations against any contingency with another excellent defender like Paul, one at least passable now as Harden and an anchor like Capela, a fantastic defender of the pick and roll plays , as protector of the hoop and also if it has to change and keep the base. That is, a defense that was already worthy retained Ariza, only lost to Beverley and added Paul, Tucker, and Mbah to Moute (ten points less for every ten possessions with him on track) and is capitalizing on the explosion of Capela (number 25). of the 2014 draft).
There are possible ultra-risky and ultra-aggressive quintets: D’Antoni is just combining Ariza, Tucker, and Mbah to Moute together. Because it can be a weapon for moments of maximum tactical demand and because obviously, the three cannot coincide with the Paul-Harden-Capela axis. But small ball alternatives can be a definitive weapon in the playoffs. Again, the script of some Warriors of those who have drunk too, precisely, find a way to counteract them.
So one of the most efficient offensive systems in history has finally a defensive endorsement that can be even elite in its best version. Who can stop that? A priori only the Warriors, one of the most efficient offensive systems in history that has, in addition, a defensive endorsement that is elite whenever it needs to be.
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