The Houston Rockets have come up short, year after year. And each season, it seems to be the same reasons why. The 2012 team that lost out to the Thunder in the first round, wasn’t ready yet. Their first-round loss to Portland was disappointing, but not surprising. They didn’t have enough defense to get by Golden State in 2015. And, they were lucky to squeak out one win against that same Warriors team in the opening-round last year. This season could be the Rockets year, though. So, why has the narrative surrounding James Harden and the Rockets shifted dramatically in the past few weeks?
To many sports fans, the saying “addition by subtraction” doesn’t make sense. But, the 2016-17 Rockets are proof that this theory does have merit. Some super teams like the Cavaliers and Warriors can put individual egos aside for the sake of the team. This never seemed to be the case with Houston’s James Harden and Dwight Howard. After three solid seasons with the team, the Rockets decided to let Howard walk. While Superman’s departure left a gaping hole in the Rockets’ defense, it actually made their entire team better.
Harden adapted to his new-look team, something Howard was never able to do. The 27-year-old became more of a facilitator this season, averaging a career best 11.2 assists per game. His previous high was 7.5 per game. Oh by the way, he also managed to set a career high of 29.1 points per game.
Harden blossomed into a team-first guy and an undisputed MVP candidate. It’s no longer a one man show when Houston takes over on offense. The Rockets had six players average double-digit points per game this season. Their new and improved attack was on full display during a five-game series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. While OKC features possibly the best offensive player in the game in Russell Westbrook, they still couldn’t keep up with the high-powered Rockets.
First year head coach, Mke D’Antoni and his crew now face a huge test in round two: the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard and company finished the season second in overall team defense. Will they be able to contain Harden for four games though? The good news for the Rockets is their team defense improved vastly from a season ago as well. Contrary to belief, the Spurs do not hold a huge advantage on that side of the ball; Houston actually ranked third in team defense, just behind San Antonio.
With the entire unit buying into team offense and defense, the Houston Rockets are better equipped to challenge for a title than ever before. Last year’s playoff loss to OKC proved the Spurs are vulnerable. The Rockets appear hungry and able to get by the Spurs; hopeful for a chance to avenge previous playoff losses to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Game 1 of the Rockets vs Spurs series begins on Monday at 8:30 EST.