Rockets Back in Action: Four Thoughts

James Harden and the Rockets are back. What should fans expect?
James Harden and the Rockets are back. What should fans expect? Photo by Eric Sauseda
The NBA has laid dormant since March 11 when the league halted play due to the impacts of COVID-19, most specifically the infection of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. At the time, the Rockets were sixth in the Western Conference standings, a game-and-a-half out of seventh place and third, showing just how closely packed the conference is.

Now, with the restart Thursday and the Rockets first game on Friday with seven games to set the seeding for the playoffs, the Rockets believe they are well positioned to make a deep playoff run. Indeed, they are one of the few teams that could arguably improve given how few games they played with their re-vamped small ball lineup before the season was stopped.

The good news is the NBA is back and we'll all get to find out soon enough. Here are four thoughts on the upcoming restart for the Rockets.

James Harden remains James Harden.

The former MVP apparently dropped 20 pounds during the quarantine, opting a rigorous workout regime with a private trainer in Arizona. He looks to be in not just great shape, but outstanding form on the court, dropping 35 points in the final exhibition game. Coach Mike D'Antoni has added some interesting wrinkles to the offense that could get Harden more opportunities while moving without the ball. During the three exhibition games, we saw lots of movement of players without the ball and plenty of ball movement across the court. Harden is already a dead-eye shooter from the step back, but open with the floor widely spaced, he is going to be ruthless on defenders.

The atmosphere will be...weird.

The "buildings" hosting the games are essentially oversized conference rooms with video boards hung around the room and a court in the middle. The NBA has done everything it can to make it interesting, but the sheer lack of noise and the oddly distanced camera angles will make for a presentation only a basketball fan could love. Like we've seen in baseball, it will be easier to hear the players on the floor, which adds something different. But, without the roar of the crowd, particularly in the playoffs, it is bound to seem strange. Also, with no legitimate home court advantage, seeding might not matter all that much.

Injuries will play an outsized role.

Eric Gordon is going to miss probably the entirety of the seeding games thanks to a sprained ankle suffered in the first half of the final exhibition game. The starting guard is expected to play a big role for the Rockets despite his poor shooting much of the season and struggles with minor injuries like this one. The Rockets had even experimented with him on the floor for a few minutes without either Harden or Westbrook. Until he returns, Danuel House, Jr., who has looked good so far, will need to step up as will guys like Jeff Green and Ben McLemore. They will absolutely need Gordon for the playoffs and everyone else. Any injuries to the Rockets or any other team could radically alter the balance of power into the playoffs.

There is no way to know how this will go.

No one is going to be able to predict how this whole things is going to go down. Unlike a normal season, the wear and tear of 82 games should be lifted. Players will be fresher for longer. But injuries, as mentioned above, will play a massive role for every team. That isn't even mentioning the potential problems that go along with playing during a pandemic, even inside the NBA bubble. And there is an argument to be made that smallball could give the Rockets some advantage in a shortened season, but there is also the possibility the style of play won't survive the rigors of a seven-game series, where coaches can map out detailed plans to defend just about anything. Bottom line: This is going to be a wild and wooly couple months, but at least we get to watch basketball again.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke