Record Since Last Recap: 2-1 MVP Since Last Recap: James Harden Best Win Last Week: Mavericks Toughest Loss Last Week: Lakers Current Record: 11-3
On Saturday night, there was a sequence of plays that represented the antithesis of what people thought about James Harden's defense last season. Not only was he effective, it was his tenaciousness on the opponent's end of the floor that won them the game. Before the season started, Harden and the Rockets were adamant they were going to be better defensively. Certainly the addition of Trevor Ariza helped, but no one expected a renewed commitment to defense would take them from one of the worst in the NBA to one of the best in one year. Yet, that's what happened and much of it is owed to the change in Harden.
No, his defense alone is not enough to elevate the entire team, but his added hustle combined with his readily apparent leadership on the court is. On Monday night before their win over the New York Knicks, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander presented Harden with the gold medal he earned as a member of Team USA in the offseason, which he led in scoring. Harden has frequently cited being around that team as his reason for an invigorated defense and desire to lead his team. Whatever they told him worked because he has rapidly become one of the best guards in the game.
Fortunately for the Rockets, this has occurred during a period of ridiculous injuries and it is made more impressive by the fact the team has such little depth at multiple positions. Three starters missed multiple games this week. Patrick Beverley missed time with a hamstring injury and Dwight Howard continues to battle a strained knee with no timetable set for a return. Terrence Jones is struggling to return from a nerve contusion in his leg and will probably be out several more weeks. That has left a starting lineup of Isaiah Canaan, Harden, Ariza, Donatas Montejunas and Tarik Black. With all due respect to the three guys not named Harden and Ariza, that is a lottery-worthy starting lineup.
There have been rumors that GM Darryl Morey is trying to unload the trade exception he earned in the Jeremy Lin trade for Corey Brewer, a defensive specialist on the perimeter, and it is no secret the team would love to re-acquire Goran Dragic, the player they let walk in favor of signing Lin. Acquiring Brewer would certainly help them in the long run, but Dragic AND Brewer could make them a contender assuming they can get healthy.
Right now, that's still a question mark. They are remarkably short on talent and experience at point guard and power forward, yet two of their injuries have hit those spots hardest, which brings me back to Harden.
In the last three games, he has averaged 30 points on 51 percent shooting and 54 percent from behind the three point line. During that same period, he is averaging 6 rebounds, nearly 6 assists and 2 steals. He has been nothing short of remarkable and the reason the Rockets have managed to keep such an impressive record even with all the injuries. That includes the Dallas win at home, where a very short-handed Rockets squad handed it to a division rival at full strength. Sure, they had a hiccup against a feisty Lakers team that should not have happened, but this team has a resilience that was present last season thanks to their sterling defensive efforts and some fairly consistent shooting from long range.
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For some perspective, the Rockets are number one in opponents field goals made and three point percentage, number two in opponent field goal percentage and points per game. Last year, they were middle of the pack in opponent field goals made, ninth in opponent three point percentage, seventh in opponent field goal percentage and twenty-third in opponent points per game.
Granted, this is only a portion of the season, but defensive statistics are generally easier to replicate, especially given how many games starters have lost so far to injury. Had they been without Howard, Jones and Beverley for extended stretches last year, the would have not fared nearly as well, but Harden's improvements are unquestionably the difference.
But even someone rolling like Harden can't sustain this kind of record forever. The goal is obviously for the team to survive this stretch and be healthy by midseason. They are doing more than surviving, but that will be tested this week with games at home against the surprising Sacramento Kings and the LA Clippers, who continue to be a favorite pick to emerge from the West despite a somewhat lackluster start. That is followed by a back-to-back road game in Milwaukee against Bucks team that is only a couple games behind Chicago in the Central Division.
It seems unlikely, unless there is a miraculous recovery from their starters, that they will be able to win more games than they lose this week, but I thought the same thing when they lost to the Lakers last week. They just keep on winning.