It's a common axiom that real basketball isn't played until Christmas. In fact, the spate of Christmas Day games is something of an opening day for the NBA despite the fact they will have been playing for two months by December 25. The Rockets are on the schedule for that day, facing the Thunder in the primetime evening spot. And there is good reason for the NBA to want them there.
There is no getting around the fact that the Rockets have been extremely good this season. It could easily be argued that they are the best team in the NBA right now. They are the only team in the league that ranks in the top five in both offensive rating (second) and defensive rating (fifth). But, how do they maintain such a torrid pace? For the purposes of this, we will set aside the greatest equalizer, injuries, and stick with what happens on the floor.
Build Team Chemistry
As good as the Rockets have been, there is no reason to think they can't be better. Chris Paul has only played in a handful of games and is just getting to the point where he can play extended minutes. As he becomes more and more acclimated to his teammates, more opportunities will come on the offensive end. It takes time for a team to come together, especially one with three new rotation players including one of the best point guards of the era. Before the season, critics wondered out loud if James Harden and Chris Paul would be able to share the ball. That clearly isn't an issue, but learning when and how to do that remains. If the can figure that out by spring, they are going to be extraordinarily difficult to beat no matter who they play.
Learn to Finish
The only disadvantage of their early-season run of blowouts is the Rockets have yet to face much adversity. They are leading the league in point differential, laying the proverbial wood to anyone and everyone in their path. But, make no mistake, tough losses and hard-fought wins will happen. It is then when the Rockets will truly begin to test their mettle and find out what kind of team they will be. Most importantly, who has the ball in the waning seconds. Which decisions will lead to the greatest success and what will end in failure. Those tests are sure to come and they will need to make the most of them. The last thing they want to do is get deep into the season not knowing how to handle the difficulties that lie ahead.
The Rockets have benefitted from an extremely light schedule thus far. It's hard to recall a time in the middle of November when a team had nearly a week between games as they have had this week. It has allowed them to rest players and play some guys longer minutes. The blowouts, however, have kept Harden's minutes down, someone who routinely is at the top of the league in minutes per game. He's tenth, but it's a far cry from first and that's a good sign. The Rockets will need to continue that throughout the season to protect everyone from fatigue as the playoffs near. One of the chief criticisms of Coach Mike D'Antoni is that the speed of his system has a tendency to wear guys down. They can't have that happen.
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Maintain Defensive Intensity
After finishing last season in the bottom half of the league on defense, the Rockets have shot up into the top five thanks to a refocused attitude and a batch of new players with defensive skills. There is no question the additions of Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker have given the Rockets a boost on the defensive end of the floor. And Chris Paul is as good or better a defender than Patrick Beverley was last season. Maintaining that defensive mindset through the heart of the season and into the playoffs will be critical to their overall success.
While December 25 might mark the opening of basketball season for casual fans, it is when the tough slog of the winter schedule begins for teams like the Rockets. Winning in January and February is perhaps more difficult than any other time of the year thanks to injuries, trade rumors and the extended break around the All-Star game. It's easy for teams to lose focus and the Rockets have had their problems with this in the past. This is the year to put that behind them and push through the doldrums. The Rockets have higher aspirations than they have had in a long time. It's time to prove it.