After an 11-14 start to the season that forced James Harden to go supernova to get his team back into the playoff picture, the Houston Rockets have almost been hiding in plain sight.
The slow start suggested that the Rockets were no longer capable of the same heights they achieved in 2017-18 due to their roster makeover, and their eventual ascension through the standings was credited to Harden’s individual brilliance, not the overall play of the team.
Nevertheless, Houston sits in third place in the Western Conference (yes, divisions still matter when it comes to multi-team ties) and is surging. After a string of wins over the best teams in the league, the Rockets have reclaimed their mantle and reestablished themselves as the Warriors’ primary opposition to winning another title.
In its current six-game winning streak since a baffling loss to the Lakers after the All-Star Break, Houston has notched convincing victories on the road against Golden State, Boston, and Toronto, the first one coming without Harden. Since Chris Paul returned to the lineup on Jan. 27, the Rockets have the fifth-best net rating in the league, bolstered by the NBA’s best offense (116.9 points per 100 possessions) and a defense that has risen from 27th to 19th in the league, per NBA.com.
Paul has been magical. Despite a hamstring injury suffered just weeks into his new four-year, $160 million contract, his current play has helped put to rest the worries about his health, especially after he missed the last two games of Houston’s 2018 playoff run. He has averaged 32 minutes per game since he came back, including playing all of the non-Harden minutes as head coach Mike D’Antoni runs perhaps the most successful stagger in the NBA. Paul has a plus-9.6 net rating in that time period and a 59.1 true shooting percentage, which is even higher than in his heyday with the Clippers.
The point guard may lack his former burst in getting to the basket, but his trademark midrange jumper has returned to form (even if the very act of taking that shot is antithetical to the Rockets’ ethos). Paul is shooting 45 percent from midrange this season, a bit lower than the last four years when he canned half of them, but he has made 12 of his last 17 from that distance. Combine that with a stellar assist and low turnover rate and Paul might not be capable of leading a team to a title himself, but he is the best second banana south of Stephen Curry.