HOUSTON – You came for the James Harden experience and you got … Kenneth Faried. You want a value acquisition? Bought out by Brooklyn, Faried strolled into the Rockets’ starting lineup this week. He had eight rebounds in the first quarter against Toronto, finishing with 14—and collecting 21 points with them.
You came for the Harden show and got … P.J. Tucker. Houston’s designated defender/corner three-point shooter was as advertised, banging in four first-half threes—racking up 18 points in all—in the Rockets’ wire-to-wire, 121-119 win.
James who? Fresh off a franchise record-setting 61 points against the Knicks on Wednesday, Harden chipped in a quiet 35 on Friday (“I wish I could have a quiet 35,” Gerald Green said), while making a key defensive stop on a Kawhi Leonard three-point attempt that stamped out a frantic fourth-quarter rally by Toronto in the closing minute.
Here comes Houston, and really—what are we to make of the Rockets right now? Friday’s win inched Houston to within a game of Portland for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. A season that began with chemistry issues, seemed snake-bitten by a mid-December injury to Chris Paul, and has been revived by a historic offensive outburst by Harden, has life again.
Suddenly the Rockets—who will welcome Paul back into the lineup on Sunday—look like contenders.
“We never lost our confidence,” Green told The Crossover. “We always believed we would get things right.”
To watch Harden is to observe an athlete at his artistic peak. The numbers cheat Harden. Peruse a stat sheet and you will assume Harden is a ball-hogging chucker. He made just five of his 20 threes against the Knicks and finished 2-of-13 from deep against Toronto. He needed 25 trips to the free throw line to get his 61 points in New York. Watch a game and you see something different. You see a playmaker probing defenses, looking to make the right play. He has his moments, the early in the shot clock, three-point launches that make you cringe. But Harden had seven assists on Friday, and if not for a few missed open shots, would have added a few more. He’s averaging 8.3 assists on the season—ranking just behind Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry in that category.
“James would rather score no points,” Green said, “and see us win.”
And, respectfully—look at who he is doing it with. Kevin Durant has Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Russell Westbrook has Paul George. On Friday, the injury-ravaged Rockets started a pair of recent buyouts (Faried, Austin Rivers), a defensive specialist (Tucker) and Eric Gordon alongside Harden.
“I’ve played with some great players, never seen anyone doing what he is doing,” Green told The Crossover. “He has to do so much out there. He’s scoring, he’s passing, he’s directing all of us where to go. All with defenses locked in on him and a defender all over him. It’s really something.”
Harden has surged into the MVP mix, and the Rockets have reinforced him. Faried? Faried has been a shell of the high energy Manimal who terrorized opponents in Denver years ago. He has battled injuries the last few seasons and was largely stapled to Brooklyn’s bench. In Houston, Faried told teammates: I think I can revive my career here. And he has, gobbling up rebounds and dunking home dump offs from Harden around the rim. In the fourth quarter, with the game still in doubt, Faried missed a free throw. And with the ball ping-ponging around the rim, he outworked three Raptors players to get to it when it came off.
“With him and P.J., we have two guys who are going to battle inside,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He gave us the athleticism that we need.”
And Rivers? Traded by Washington, released by Phoenix, Rivers is experiencing his own revival in Houston. His defensive mindset has been welcomed (“Me and P.J. fight over who to guard sometimes,” Rivers said) and he has embraced D’Antoni’s green light, jacking up a career-high 6.3 three-point attempts per game.
Paul will return on Sunday, and the timing couldn’t be better. Harden is a tireless worker, hellbent on playing in every game. But the Rockets remember the image of a worn down Harden struggling in the second round of the playoffs. Paul will relieve some of that burden, preserving Harden for the postseason.
And when they get there? Defense remains a question. For all of their offensive firepower, the Rockets were a top-10 defense last season, and will need to rediscover that identity. Houston clamped down in the second half of last season, ranking third in defensive efficiency over the final 45 games. Faried’s versatility should help, switching, rebounding, filling the Clint Capela-sized hole for a few weeks longer.
But the opportunity is there. Harden has been electrifying, with a usage rate just a shade behind Westbrook’s record-setting number (41.65) during his MVP season. If Paul can stay healthy—always a question until he does—Houston has the look of a contender.