James Harden, Chris Paul pairing has Rockets playing like title contenders

<p ><p ><p ><p ><p ><p >CLOSE<img src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/uxstatic/usatoday/usat-web-static-3468.0/images/sprites/icon_close.png"/ alt="James Harden, Chris Paul have turned Rockets into title contenders" ></p ></p ></p ></p ><p ><p > SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick and AJ Neuharth-Keusch discuss the increased ejections in the NBA. <span >USA TODAY Sports</span ></p ></p ></p ></p ><p ><p ><p ><img src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/12dd643beb20b3fcc6fe839243661526e2fc718b/c=564-0-4062-2630&amp;amp;r=x404&amp;amp;c=534x401/local/-/media/2017/12/07/USATODAY/USATODAY/636482379136863591-USATSI-10446639.jpg&quot; alt="NBA: Indiana Pacers at Houston Rockets"/ ></p ><p ><span ><span >Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) controls the ball as Indiana Pacers guard Cory Joseph (6) defends during the second quarter at Toyota Center.</span ><span >(Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)</span ></span ></p ></p ></p ><p >Mike D’Antoni was the one who had preached patience, who told the basketball world his Houston Rockets would need time to adjust to the return of nine-time All-Star Chris Paul.</p ><p >“It's going to set us back - no doubt about it,” <code data-tlink="https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2017/11/05/chris-paul-chemistry-james-harden-rockets-teammates/834137001/&quot; >D’Antoni told USA TODAY Sports</code > early last month. “There’s going to be a learning curve.”</p ><p >Instead, here’s what we’ve learned since the NBA’s preeminent point guard coach welcomed Paul back after a 14-game absence on Nov. 16 and reunited him with MVP frontrunner/fellow point guard James Harden.</p ><p ><strong >The Rockets’ defense makes them title contenders</strong ></p ><p >Yes, it’s still somewhat early in the season. But the Rockets, 7-0 since Paul returned from his knee injury and a Western Conference-leading 18-4 heading into Thursday’s game at Utah, finally have the kind of two-way formula that could put them on the Golden State Warriors’ level.</p ><p >We knew they would be dominant offensively because, well, they did that even before Paul decided to leave the Clippers last summer. But despite longstanding narratives that D’Antoni teams don’t defend or that no team with Harden could excel defensively, this group’s ability to do just that is making believers out of rival executives. </p ><p >After finishing 18th in defensive rating last season (106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) when they went 55-27 and fell to the Spurs in the second round, the Rockets are currently fifth (100.9). Why does this defensive elevation matter so much? Because as Paul has been reminding his teammates, only one team in the past 40 seasons (the 2001-02 Lakers) was able to win a title while not having a defense that was ranked in the top 10 (they were 19th).</p ><p ></p ><p >So how are they doing it? The offseason additions of Paul (a seven-time, All-Defensive First Team selection), the versatile and rugged P.J. Tucker, and fellow renowned defender Luc Mbah a Moute have worked wonders. The latter two reserves are also good enough shooters to avoid being liabilities on offense (Mbah a Moute is shooting 40.4% from three-point range; Tucker 37%). Add them to defensive-minded talents like Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela, and assistant coach/defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik has found himself with much more to work with. </p ><p >“(The defense) is a little infectious,” D’Antoni told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday. “PJ and Mbah a Moute are as good as anybody in the league at their positions, and whatever that position is – whether (they’re playing) five, four, three, two or one. Now, it’s infectious. And Chris, we don’t even talk about Chris’s defense. …So you add all that, and it’s like ‘Well yeah, why didn’t we see that (coming)?’”</p ><p ><img src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/0fc05155c87de473fa8100fa0de0d7d341a897bc/c=266-0-3926-2752&amp;amp;r=x408&amp;amp;c=540x405/local/-/media/2017/12/07/USATODAY/USATODAY/636482392226919318-USATSI-10446918.jpg&quot; alt="Indiana Pacers guard Darren Collison (2) dribbles the" width="540" height="405"/ ><p >Indiana Pacers guard Darren Collison (2) dribbles the ball as Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) defends during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. <span >(Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)</span ></p ></p ><p >When Tucker met with the Rockets to discuss free agency in July, the 32-year-old was curious what they had planned on the defensive end.</p ><p >“They had months where they were top three in defense last year, and in the end they let it slip and that’s where they think they faltered in winning (more),” Tucker told USA TODAY Sports. “As a free agent, I’m thinking, ‘I’m what they need. I’m what they need.’ And then they signed Luc after me, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is special.’"</p ><p ><span ><strong >NBA Week 7 conclusions:</strong ><code data-tlink="https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2017/12/06/nba-conclusions-thunder-finally-clutch-jimmy-butler-trade-chicago-bulls/926363001/&quot; >The Thunder are clutch, and the Butler trade wasn't so bad</code ></span ></p ><p ><span ><code data-tlink="https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2017/12/05/nba-mvp-rankings-can-anybody-catch-james-harden/922835001/&quot; ><strong >NBA MVP rankings: </strong >Can anybody catch James Harden?</code ></span ></p ><p ><span ><strong >Week 7 NBA power rankings:</strong ><code data-tlink="https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2017/12/04/week-7-nba-power-rankings-rockets-take-top-spot-cavaliers-stay-hot/918469001/&quot; > Rockets take top spot; Cavaliers stay hot</code ></span ></p ><p >Like a teacher who has more prized pupils than he can count, Bzdelik is loving the fact so many of his students are defensive-minded now. Before the Rockets played their way into the top five defensive rating, he started every film session by reminding them, “You’re still not top five, fellas.’”</p ><p >“We’re not there,” Tucker said. “We’ve got to keep chipping at it, chipping at it. And that’s why when (we got top five), we were like, ‘Forget that. We want top three.’ We want to take it to another level.</p ><p ><img src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/4ffa4a7370cf8bc01a2235f9664b34999ae57a98/c=244-0-4085-2888&amp;amp;r=x408&amp;amp;c=540x405/local/-/media/2017/12/07/USATODAY/USATODAY/636482398713368055-USATSI-10405448.jpg&quot; alt="Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) handles the" width="540" height="405"/ ><p >Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) handles the ball while Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (4) defends during the first quarter at Toyota Center. <span >(Photo: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports)</span ></p ></p ><p >“We have guys who are bull-headed guys on defense, guys who care about meeting our goals defensively and knowing that if we’re a top five defensive team, with our offense, then we’re the best team in the NBA – (or at least) one of the best. …I think for us to win a championship, if we’re a top three defense then we’re really contending for a championship.”</p ><p ><strong >Paul and Harden are lethal when they’re together – even moreso when they’re not</strong ></p ><p >D’Antoni said it best when describing the Paul-Harden pairing: “You’ve got a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor for 48 minutes.”</p ><p >After years of Paul being the high-usage leader of the Clippers' offense, and with Harden learning last season that his heavy workload would come with a cost at playoff time, their shared objective of staying fresher is being met in a big way so far. D’Antoni has staggered the minutes, making them a nightmare for opposing defenses, with second units routinely forced to deal with the kind of all-star level scoring and playmaking they’re simply not used to.</p ><p ><p ></p ></p ><p >The evidence shows as much, too: While the Rockets have a net rating of plus-4.8 in the 149 minutes when Harden and Paul have played together, their individual net ratings have skyrocketed from the time spent taking turns (16.1 for Paul, 13.2 for Harden). The Rockets’ offense that was second in the NBA last season (111.8 points scored per 100 possessions) is even better this year (112.4, also 2nd).</p ><p > “I knew that Chris and (shooting guard) Eric (Gordon), or James and Eric, in the time that they’re together, would arguably be one of the best backcourts in the league – Eric is that good,” D’Antoni said. “And so, we start with that. And then it’s, ‘Ok, when they’re not on, it’s James and Chris. Can they do it?’</p ><p >“It’s been seamless, (even though) I thought there might be some bumps. But because of their willingness, and their knowledge of the game and their willingness to share the ball, and Chris and James both willing to be the sidekick for a play or two, then it’s worked out quicker than expected…. It’s worked out better than our wildest dreams.”</p ><p ><em >Follow USA TODAY Sports' <code data-tlink="https://twitter.com/sam_amick&quot; >Sam Amick</code > on Twitter. </em ></p ><p ><p ><p ><p ><p ><span >Show Thumbnails</span ></p ><p ><span >Show Captions</span ></p ></p ><code rel="prev" >Last Slide</code ><code rel="next" >Next Slide</code ></p ></p ></p ><p > </p ><p > </p >

CLOSEJames Harden, Chris Paul have turned Rockets into title contenders

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Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) controls the ball as Indiana Pacers guard Cory Joseph (6) defends during the second quarter at Toyota Center.(Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Mike D’Antoni was the one who had preached patience, who told the basketball world his Houston Rockets would need time to adjust to the return of nine-time All-Star Chris Paul.

“It's going to set us back - no doubt about it,” D’Antoni told USA TODAY Sports early last month. “There’s going to be a learning curve.”

Instead, here’s what we’ve learned since the NBA’s preeminent point guard coach welcomed Paul back after a 14-game absence on Nov. 16 and reunited him with MVP...

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