courtesy of nba.com
The Rockets will get a chance to lick their wounds after Saturday night’s loss to the Warriors with games against some of the weaker teams in the league, traveling below the border to face a Wolves team in Mexico, coming home for Sam Hinkie’s 76ers, and traveling back up to Oklahoma City for a date with the Thunder next Sunday evening. Houston should be getting Dwight Howard back by Wednesday, one would think, but there is still no word on the status of Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley. The two latter Rockets could miss more than a week, their loss exerting more strain on an already thin Houston bench.
What I’ll be looking for this week: I don’t mind the loss of Beverley during this stretch so much because the circumstances give Isaiah Canaan extra reps to further acclimate himself within the Houston offense. With Chandler Parsons gone, Houston will need Canaan to assert himself during critical stretches of the season, if they hope to maintain their current winning percentage. Fatigue will eventually take its toll upon James Harden and another perimeter playmaker will have to step up.
The other big story will be the Dwight Howard-Nerlens Noel rematch on Friday night at Toyota Center. While Howard seemed respectable in the box score, Noel did about as good a job I can remember anyone (not named Bargnani) doing on Howard, consistently denying the big man positioning at his favorite spots. I couldn’t get a conclusory grasp of whether the problem was more symptomatic of poor post positioning technique on the part of Howard or a systematic issue with Houston’s post entry efforts. Either way, Noel is an absolute beast who should anchor the Philadelphia defense for the next decade. Will the Rockets make the necessary adjustments to get Howard the ball in the post?
Last of all, you’ll have to wonder if Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins will still be continuing their freeze-out of Reggie Jackson by the time Sunday evening rolls around. The Rockets can only hope so.
The dangerous Memphis Grizzlies–maybe the worst matchup in the entire league for Houston–await the Rockets at the start of the next week.
Initially, a preliminary matter. After the Houston Rockets thoroughly disposed of the defending champion Spurs, the game was largely considered a throwaway, and not a validation of the Rockets’ abilities. After all, the Spurs had rested starting big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, and super-sub Manu Ginobili; they had waived the white flag before tipoff had even happened, the story went. Predictably, that similar rationale isn’t being applied to last night in a game that saw Houston go to war without 3/5 of its starting lineup. A quick perusal of my timeline, and some headlines, unearthed the type of slobbering over the Warriors that I had expected. Forget that it took Golden State all of 45 minutes to separate from this severely undermanned Rockets bunch – the media darling Warriors are the league’s best team. At the very most, there are mentions of Howard’s absence, but certainly nothing of both Beverley and Jones being gone too, and certainly nothing approaching “throwaway” status similar to Thursday night’s dismissals of Houston’s win in similar situations. That’s fine. People already loved the Warriors anyway and they just needed affirmation for their prior beliefs. It’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it’s interesting to note how funny a thing narrative can be, at the national level.
NBA.com’s Blogtable last week tossed around the idea of James Harden for MVP, a bandwagon I have been at the head of for the past two weeks. But as I’ve mentioned for some time, as with most things, there is something of a lag between the time when conventional wisdom has caught up with truth and reality. Take a look at one of the responses, for instance:
Seriously? Just because a guy looks into a camera and says something preposterous we don’t have to legitimize it here. He could win the scoring title this season and that still won’t make him the MVP, not on my ballot. My MVP has to impact the game in more than just on facet. He’s an offensive juggernaut, an absolute scoring machine. I’m a huge fan of that part of his game. But he’s deficient on the other end to the point that it takes away from his overall value. The MVP of the league has to be a more complete player than Harden is right now.
Harden, of course, as those of us who have been watching him night in and night out can attest, has stepped it up considerably on defense, this season, a big reason why the team is off to such a stellar start. But it won’t matter unless the Rockets win enough games for people to actually…watch their games.
I don’t think an MVP bid is out of the question. He finished fifth last year amidst all of the negativity surrounding his play. If he continues scoring at his current rate, and the Rockets finish at the top of the standings, I’d give him as good a shot as anyone.
An interesting nugget in Zach Lowe’s latest this week at Grantland:
The Warriors have an intense interest in how this all works out. If the cap jumps unchecked into the $90 million range in 2016-17, the Dubs, even with Thompson’s pricey new deal, could re-sign one of the Draymond Green/Harrison Barnes duo and still have enough cap space to fit a max contract for Kevin Durant or some other player.
The Rockets, of course, would also be one of the teams finding themselves in, or close to being in, such a cap situation if the figure jumps at the unprecedented rate. There’s a thinking–I read somewhere–that it may come down to just Wizards and Thunder. But Houston, Marc Stein first reported, fully intends to pursue Durant, and if he becomes available, I’d like their chances as much as anyone. Much of this depends on what happens with the Thunder these next two seasons, and this season’s circumstances aren’t helping matters any. If Oklahoma City parts ways with Reggie Jackson this summer, as some believe could be the case, you’d have to wonder if Durant would see that as the final straw.
Either way, I have to ask: why is it a pipe dream? The Rockets will position themselves financially to be able to make a run, and you have to figure they’ll still be in contention (especially if this season’s start is any indication of what’s yet to come). Is it highly unlikely to happen? Yes, of course. But pipedream? Not at all. Not unless you think guys don’t dream/talk about playing together on the same team one day as their best friend. As long as James Harden is playing at a high level, in those Chinese national team uniforms, you had better believe the Rockets will at least be a part of that discussion.
It would be easy to write this win off as yet another against an underwhelming opponent. After all, these weren’t the same San Antonio Spurs you watched on TV last June with both of the team’s starting big men, and Manu Ginobili, held inactive. But such dismissal would be overlooking of a critical point, perhaps not impressive to the larger NBA, but significant to those who have observed the Rockets over the years: last season, this would have been a close game, as would have some of the team’s other victories. They would have come out and sleepwalked through the first quarter, playing down to the competition. Upon mini Spurs runs, Houston would have tried to outscore the opponent, rather than ramping up the intensity on defense as they did throughout last night. Yes, the Houston Rockets may still have not proven to the world that they are among the league’s core elite teams. But this complete transformation is real.