With a couple of days off before his Houston Rockets play the Utah Jazz on Thursday night, league MVP James Harden had one thing on his mind:
“Maaaan. It’s freeezing in Salt Lake City. This can’t be normal,” Harden tweeted.
It’s true, it has been frigid in Utah’s state capital this week. But the Rockets are no strangers to cold streaks; after all, they’re going through one themselves.
The Rockets stand at 13th place in the Western Conference, with just an 11-12 record so far this season after amassing a 65-17 record last season. Given that they’d have to go 54-5 the rest of the way to match what they accomplished last season, they’ve probably clinched a regular-season regression.
And on Monday, they suffered a shocking loss in an even colder climate, scoring just 29 points in the second half thanks to icy shooting in a 12-point defeat to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Rockets have reasons for their disappointing start. Chris Paul was suspended by the NBA, and James Harden and Eric Gordon both suffered injuries that kept them out for multiple games at different points in the season. At first, there was the problem of Carmelo Anthony being bad in his minutes on the court, and now that he’s been waived, there’s the problem of getting better play from the other players who play those minutes.
And of course, there’s the fact that it’s just a different team than last year. Trevor Ariza went to Phoenix, Luc Mbah a Moute signed a contract with the Clippers. Ryan Anderson was traded to the Suns, along with potentially helpful second-round pick De’Anthony Melton. The depth that the Rockets could rely on last season isn’t around anymore.
Some of their stars have regressed somewhat, too. Harden, to be clear, is an exception, having another terrific season and even scoring slightly more than last year, up to 30.6 points per game. The newly re-signed Clint Capela is scoring and defending well too. But Paul hasn’t looked completely right so far, and Gordon is shooting a catastrophic 36 percent from the field. Right now, teams that have stopped the Harden and Capela pick and roll by leaving the other three guys on the court have found success.
“I’m still not that concerned, to tell you the truth,” Paul told CBS Sports. “Somebody’s gotta beat us four out of seven times. I don’t see that happening.”
In that context, they face a familiar Jazz team for the second time in 2018-19. Of course, these teams know each other from the five-game Western Conference semifinal series that happened seven months ago.
“That was a great series,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni remembered. “The big thing was they had a couple of guys hurt, with (Ricky) Rubio and even (Dante) Exum got hurt. That doomed them for sure. Hopefully we would have won anyway, but the playoffs are a little bit about trying to stay healthy, and they couldn’t do it.”
But there’s an extra bit of competition gained by how well the stars of the two teams know each other. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell spent time with both Paul and Harden this summer. Harden and Mitchell filmed a commercial together in Barcelona, and Paul worked out extensively with Mitchell as they both sought to improve their games.
“He’s like a little brother to me, man,” Paul said. “I talk to Donovan often, all the time. He’s struggled here and there (in his second season), he’s had a couple injuries here and there, it happens. He’s going to be fine. I watch, I watch the games, but there’s just a lot of stuff you learn as you go.”
And Harden was impressed with Mitchell’s approach off the court. “He’s very humble. He’s still young, but he handles himself very well. Very mature. He just worries about basketball and taking care of his family.”
So yes, the stars of these two teams like each other. But with both teams fighting for spots in an uber-compressed West — with 14 teams within five games of each other — they know this battle is important.
“For us, every game is a playoff atmosphere, playoff kind of game for us,” Harden said. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Friendship and competitiveness? Maybe the Thursday night game at Vivint Arena between these two teams won’t be so chilly after all.
ROCKETS AT JAZZ
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • TNT
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 12-13; Rockets 11-12
Last meeting • Jazz, 100-89 (Oct. 24)
About the Jazz • Guard Grayson Allen was sent to the SLC Stars after appearing on the inactive list against San Antonio on Tuesday. ... Every Jazz player shot 50 percent or better from three in Tuesday’s game against San Antonio.
About the Rockets • Zhou Qi is day-to-day with a left ankle sprain. ... James Harden is leading the NBA in points per game again this season with 30.6. ... Clint Capela is averaging 18.1 points and 11.8 rebounds per game after signing a $90 million contract this summer.