Houston • In 2017-18, the Houston Rockets finished with 65 wins.
They chased the vaunted Golden State Warriors, a team that features not one but two MVP winners on its roster to seven games in the Western Conference Finals, and only lost that last Game 7 because of an injury to Chris Paul and remarkably missing 27 threes in a row at one point. They were a whisker away from a trip to the NBA Finals, and given how that series went for Golden State, imagining the Rockets as likely champions isn’t difficult.
And yet, there are those on the Rockets that say that they feel this year’s team is better.
“Obviously we’re confident,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They’ve always had the belief that we’re locked in, we’re as good as anybody if not better than anybody.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case during the course of the regular season. The Rockets won 12 fewer games than in 2017-18, and looked to be broken defensively in the season’s first third, requiring major changes from D’Antoni and assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who leads the Rockets’ defensive schemes.
Some of those difficulties were due to personnel changes, too. The Rockets moved on from Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in the offseason, the former heading to Phoenix while the latter went to L.A. Meanwhile, the Rockets acquired Carmelo Anthony, who only worked to confirm his declining defensive reputation with an ugly 10 games that just led to his eventual dump from the squad. Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and even James Harden missed time due to injury early in the season.
But over the course of their 20-5 end to the season, they were the league’s best team, showing it against a variety of opponents. And of course, there’s been the remarkable shellacking they’ve put on the Utah Jazz so far, a good team that has looked outclassed more than any playoff matchup we’ve seen this year.
“We just battled through a lot of adversity and so many different lineups, so many people hurt, so many people out, that once it came all together, they locked in totally and we were feeling pretty good, we’ve been playing this way for a couple of months now,” D’Antoni said.
Harden’s the offensive engine, obviously, and he has unquestionably even improved from last year’s MVP campaign. Despite the injuries, he led the Rockets to the league’s second-best offense in remarkable ways.
The team argues, though, that despite the departures of lanky defenders Ariza and Mbah a Moute, they’re now more cohesive defensively than ever before, thanks to continuity from the main group. After holding the Jazz to double-digit scores in consecutive games, it’s hard to argue that.
“That’s just us being together for a bit now. Our core, Chris and James, when they get to getting us going, when they’re pushing [and] when they’re aggressive, they make it easier for all of us,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “So then me, Clint and Chris can really set up defense. We communicate well in our first unit. We all fight, argue, talk all the time. But in the end, we all get an understanding, and that’s made our defense really good.”
The result has been a powerhouse, through the first two games, that looks like its on the path to challenge Golden State once again. The series isn’t over, by any means, but the Rockets have made a statement.