In his postgame press conference Monday night after the Rockets beat the Utah Jazz 102-97, coach Mike D'Antoni was asked about yet another stellar performance from James Harden. "I know he's the MVP and everything," he said, "but this level the last three or four games are really out there, as good as he ever played."
During this Rockets four-game winning streak, James Harden is averaging 39 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. He's had two triple doubles including his fourth 50-point triple double, the most by any player in NBA history. D'Antoni's words might not be hyperbole.
And it's a good thing because the rest of the Rockets have struggled. They are still missing James Ennis, who remains out with a hamstring injury. They have just now begun to get their first glimpses of Brandon Knight, who has finally returned to the court after missing nearly 18 months with a torn ACL and knee infection. But, the injuries haven't really been the story.
Eric Gordon continues his abysmal distance shooting going only 3 for 23 (13 percent) during the streak. And Chris Paul does not look like the same player the Rockets acquired prior to last season. Across the board — points, shooting percentage, three point percentage, free throw percentage — his numbers are down. In the last four games, he's averaged 11 points and 9 assists while shooting only 11 for 42 (26 percent) from the floor. That number is actually lower (22 percent) when you take out three pointers because his percentage from beyond the arc — 30 — is actually better despite being one of the best midrange shooters in the game over his career.
Paul's mysterious down season has been one of the more conspicuous issues for the Rockets all season and a key contributing factor to their inconsistent play along with the changing lineups and reliance upon young and new players on the roster.
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Some, like Danuel House, Jr., and Gary Clark, who has oddly disappeared from the lineup even with Ennis on the shelf, have been pleasant surprises, and the steady play of Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker and Nene, since returning from injury, have certainly helped. But the Rockets will need everyone playing at a high level to keep up the win streak and put them back into the Western Conference playoff race.
The good news is the West is wide open. The Rockets have jumped four spots from 14 to 10 in a matter of a couple days. They are only one game back of the seventh seed Trailblazers and two-and-a-half back of the fourth seed Lakers, two of the four teams they have beaten on this streak.
While the games against Memphis and Utah both ended up closer than they should have been (the Rockets were up by 21 against the Grizz and 18 against the Jazz), the Rockets managed to pull of wins by making key plays down the stretch and relying on Harden for many of them. If there is even a degree of progression to the mean for guys like Gordon and Paul (it's hard to imagine both suddenly falling so precipitously for an entire season) and they get continued contributions from the additions of Knight and House along with the solid play of Capela and Tucker, there is no reason to think they can't climb right back into the hunt for one of the best records in the West.
The transcendent play of Harden has been, and will continue to be, the key to any success they have. After hitting the dagger three to put the game away in the fourth quarter against Utah, the MVP skipped back down the court, holding out his jersey and yelling, "We're back!" at the crowd. Harden certainly is and he's dragging his team along with him.