The Rockets were down five entering the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz at Toyota Center Monday night. They were trailing by eight with just 9:30 left.
They won by 21.
All night, the Jazz and had been swarming around James Harden and Chris Paul, effectively shutting them down (as much as that can reasonably be done - Harden still had 26/6/6 while Paul had 18/10/9), but, more importantly, keeping them from getting teammates involved. They double teamed on screens. They scrambled to close out on shooters. Even without their star big man, Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are one of the league's stingiest defenses.
The #Rockets effective field goal percentage in their 41-point 4th quarter: 95%. That’s absurd against any defense, let alone a top-10 unit.— MoiseKapenda Bower (@moisekapenda) December 19, 2017
None of it mattered. In a barrage of three pointers, tough interior defense and sharp slashing cuts to the basket, the Rockets turned around what could have been one of the most disappointing losses of the season and turned it into their fourteenth straight win.
What has made the Rockets not only one of the best in the NBA but also one of the most confounding to opponents is how effective they are no matter what the defensive scheme, how well they are shooting or what the performance level of their marquee superstars are that night. And when they start hitting threes, they are nearly impossible to stop.
In previous seasons, they did not have this level of balance offensively. If Harden struggled, the team tended to struggle with him. Additionally, there wasn't the level of defense, particularly on the perimeter, we see from this squad. At the moment, this is a team without much of a weakness.
The Rockets take more three pointers in a night than some teams take in a week or more, but they are in the top half of the league in percentage as well, down just a tick from a week ago when they were in the top 10. Their relative consistency in this area mixed with their ability to go on a tear from behind the arc gives them the ability to stay in games even when they have been down most of the night like they were against Utah.
But, they are also one of the best at scoring points in the paint and excel in transition too. Then there is the added wrinkle of a midrange game thanks to Paul.
While midrange shots may be anathema to the Daryl Morey/Mike D'Antoni grand offensive experiment under most circumstances, Paul's 50-plus percent shooting from 15-17 feet fits like a glove. The Morey/D'Antonio offense is less about the shots you take than about efficiency. If your odds of hitting a long two are roughly the same as a three, may as well take the longer shot and get the extra point. But if you have one guy (or two when you include Harden who is outstanding from the free throw line extended) hitting better than half his shots from a few steps closer, you let him take those.
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Paul has added that in-between dimension to the Rockets that can be so valuable down the stretch in games. Against Milwaukee with Harden struggling thanks to a bruised knee, Paul took over with a variety of moves to the basket and short jump shots he considers like layups to him. As Milwaukee crowded the paint and stayed in front of shooters, Paul found the sweet spot in between and exploited it.
If those weren't enough offensive options to make the Rockets a nightmare for other teams, tack on Clint Capela, who is looking like a legit All Star at the center position. He went off for 24 points and 20 rebounds. The lob game to Capela not only gives him easy buckets, but it loosens up defenses and keeps teams from double teaming Harden and Paul on drives to the basket.
Finally, there is the unbelievable balance of scoring talent the Rockets can assemble on the floor when needed. At one point on Monday night as they were making their comeback against the Jazz, the lineup was Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon (who hit seven threes and scored 33 points including 17 in the fourth quarter), Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker. Literally every guy on the floor can spot up from the three point line and four of the five can take their defender off the dribble. Who can guard that?
Obviously, it is a long season and no doubt teams are going to throw every possible defense at the Rockets to see if they can find the magic formula to shutting them down. And, sure, there are teams who are the Rockets equal in many ways, presenting their own unique challenges. But, for now, it seems like the only way the Rockets can be beaten is if they beat themselves.