Much of the excitement of the opening night of the 2017-2018 NBA season was stipped from us early when Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics went down early with a devastating leg injury. Reports now indicate a broken tibia and a fractured ankle, that will likely take him out for the season. Luckily for us in the next game, the Houston Rockets brought some of the excitement back with a thrilling comeback win over the defending champions Golden State Warriors in Golden State.
It was a raucous atmosphere at Oracle Arena last night, and lots of emotion as the Warriors got their rings and celebrated last years championship. By halftime, the Houston Rockets were down nine points. By the end of third quarter, the deficit was thirteen points. In the fourth quarter, the Rockets outscored the Warriors by fourteen points and won the game 122-121. Down the stretch, the Rockets showed toughness and resolve, and their new additions paid off.
Much was made of the Rockets offseason when they acquired all-star point guard Chris Paul in a trade with the Los Angeles. People around the league were concerned on how two ball dominant players would fit together. Last year James Harden had a ridiculous usage rating of 35.1 and Chris Paul’s was also high at 25. 8. People wondered if those numbers would even out this season.
For one game at least it looks like Harden will be the primary ball handler and Chris Paull will be off the ball more. Harden finished the game with a 34.2 usage rating, and Paul’s was only 16.4. A big part of that is Paul is the new guy. It will take some time for Paul to get used to head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and the Houston players. Harden already has that luxury, so he will likely be the primary ball handler at least early on.
Another part of it was Paul was struggling from the field, while Harden had it rolling. Paul only finished with four points on two for nine shooting, while Harden dropped 27 points on 10 for 23 shooting from the field. It should also be noted that Chris Paul was not 100% and his knee was bothering him at times. Something to keep an eye on going forward.
These numbers indicate that Paul didn’t play great and he undoubtedly struggled with his shot. What he did bring was passing, smart basketball and toughness. Three things that Houston needed last season. Paul finished the game with 11 assists to Harden’s ten. Even though he struggled with his shot, Paul still consistently set up his teammates for easy baskets. The best part is he only had one turnover. Something Houston struggled with last season. Houston was 24th in the league last season in turnovers at 13.3 per game; last night they only had 12. Paul’s toughness was also on display with eight rebounds, two steals, and a block. It was good to see Paul contributing in other areas when his shot wasn’t falling.
Paul wasn’t the only addition on display last night. Houston also signed wing defenders P.J Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah Moute in the offseason. It’s clear that addressing the defense was a priority for the Rockets in the offseason. Last season they finished 18th in defensive efficiency. Paul, Tucker and Mbah Moute will change that this season. Both Tucker and Mbah Moute made a significant impact. In fact, they were both playing in crunch time showing they earned D’Antoni’s trust. Tucker played 29 minutes, and his plus/minus was +20, while Mbah Moute played 23 minutes and finished with a +4. They were both brought in for defense, but they both came up big on the offensive end.
Tucker had 20 points including four threes, and Mbah Moute had fourteen points and two three-pointers. These guys will mostly be shooting threes this season, if they can make them at an above average clip than Houston just got even more dangerous.
People wondered if Houston’s offensive style would change with the addition of Paul. If last night is an indication of the season, then it hasn’t changed. Houston will still shoot a lot of threes and look to get to the free throw line often. Last season the Rockets broke an NBA record by attempting 40 threes a game. They also attempted a league-leading 26.5 free throws per game. It was much of the same last night as Houston attempted 41 threes, and a few less free throws with 19 attempts.
The free throws may go down a bit this season, but expect Houston to fire at will from beyond deep. Paul only attempted 4.3 free throws per game last season compared to Harden’s 10.3. Houston may trade a few free throws for some of Paul’s patented mid-range jumpers. They are just as automatic as a free throw anyway.
Thier pace was also more of the same. Some thought Paul might slow them down. Houston was third in pace last season at 102.5 possessions per game. Last night they had 104.3. They will still run like mad.
Now, this is just one game, but it is a huge confidence booster for the Rockets. To win a game on the road against the defending champs and the likely champs this year, is significant. It’s especially meaningful since they are still figuring things out offensively. Now the loss for the Warriors means nothing, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t big for the Rockets. Remember the Warriors were without Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green got hurt, and they were tinkering with some lineups by playing young guys. Houston caught some breaks for sure. That doesn’t matter for them. The process of figuring out how to best play Paul will likely take 20 to 30 games. They will take wins like this when they can get them.
Houston’s style is mostly the same from last season. What’s different is their versatility and defensive toughness. Last night after the game James Harden said: “This is are the most versatile team we’ve had yet”. Their toughness was on display int he fourth quarter when they rallied from a thirteen point deficit. Toughness will breed confidence, and the Rockets believe they can beat the Warriors if they meet in the playoffs. That may not be true, but if the Rockets think it that’s a deadly weapon. Tonight the Rockets backcourt experiment is on display again as they take on the Sacramento Kings. Stay tuned for how this plays out, but for now, it’s clear the Rockets are a mentally tougher team this year.
[Featured Image by Bill Baptist/Getty Images]