Late in the first half, James Harden faked a Denver defender practically out of his shorts before stepping back for a three pointer. His defender managed to recover just enough to foul Harden in the process. It was just another day at the office for the best player in the NBA currently though it was the first night in the last dozen games he didn't reach 35 points — he had 32. But, despite the historic offensive output from the team's best guard, they wouldn't be winning without a scrappy, tough cast of surrounding characters.
Before getting to the guys on the floor, it is worth noting the ones who aren't. Chris Paul remains out with a hamstring injury and the Rockets will treat him like his ligaments are made of tissue paper until whenever necessary. It was clear last year in the playoffs that Paul is a critical component to the Rockets championship aspirations.
But, Paul isn't alone on the bench. Eric Gordon has missed several games after bruising his knees, James Ennis is just now returning from his own hamstring injury and Brandon Knight is still trying to play himself back into shape. That's a substantive part of the players who were expected to play important minutes for this team all year.
In their absence, and along with Harden's transcendent performances, the Rockets are fielding a former G-Leaguer and two guys grabbed out of nowhere the last two Decembers. That is in addition to Clint Capela, who is turning into one of the league's best young centers, and the ever-reliable P.J. Tucker, who is shooting over 38 percent from the three-point line while providing stalwart defense.
As a result, the Rockets have won 12 of their last 14 including 10 straight at home (they are 14-1 since losing their first four at Toyota Center to open the season) including wins over the Lakers, Trailblazers, Celtics, Nuggets, Thunder and Warriors. They also happen to have a 10-6 record against the best teams in the West. Impressive even when healthy.
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But they are getting quality offense off the bench from Gerald Green, another guy who can get his own shot in Austin Rivers, and hard-playing hustle from Danuel House, only one of whom fans may have guessed would be a contributor this year.
And make no mistake, Harden's unbelievable run has propelled this team from bottom of the Western Conference to the top five, but there is something unique about the group around him.
Maybe it is because of the injuries that has allowed guys like House, who will likely sign a fully guaranteed contract this week after the team dumped Michael Carter Williams to Chicago on Monday, and Green to get more shots, and Rivers to find a home here with a spot open. With guys like Paul and Ennis and Gordon missing, the Rockets have to be scrappy and tenacious. They have to dive for balls and fight for rebounds. Some of these guys need to prove themselves and they are doing just that.
It can only pay dividends when the injuries begin to clear up. The identity the Rockets have forged, at least in part while some of their best players have been in street clothes, will undoubtedly be a part of their makeup as the season continues. With Harden continuing to look like a favorite to repeat as MVP, it feels like he has a roster around him built perfectly to complement his unique talents.