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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Commentary

Rockets off to big start with strong players


The Houston Rockets have lived up to their name; they’ve soared to hot start and put the whole league on notice.

A little over two weeks into the season, the Rockets have cruised to a 9-2 record good enough for second place in the Western conference and only a game behind the Memphis Grizzlies. During this period, the Rockets are second in average points allowed per game (91.6) and first in opponents average field goal percentage (.451).

Granted, only two of their victories have come against opponents with records more than .500 — the Miami Heat and half of the San Antonio Spurs (due to injuries) — and we’re only about 10 perecent into a long NBA season, but those stats are still nothing to scoff at.

After failing to bring in a big name player in free agency and with Chandler Parsons heading up I-45 to rival Dallas Mavericks, the Rockets had to settle for small forward Trevor Ariza. Many would have called the pick a downgrade, but it turns out Ariza provides exactly what the Rockets were lacking — defense. He also cost the team half as much.

Sure, Ariza can’t compare to Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh offensively, but Ariza is an elite perimeter defender. In his first stint with Houston in 2009, Ariza was one of the main options who was asked to do more than he could handle, and that led to him being traded away. However, this time Ariza is playing a specific role and playing it to perfection.

Being in arguably the toughest division in sports, the Rockets can’t rely on their offensive firepower alone. With the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the new-look Dallas Mavericks and the rock-solid Memphis Grizzlies, Houston will need to be much better on defense. Even the Pelicans won’t be an easy victory.

James Harden is notorious for his poor defending, but he always had the talent to be a solid defender. His problem has always been on the mental side. When he wants it to, Harden’s on-ball defense can be pretty good. But when Harden was defending off the ball, he was either resting or just playing carelessly, allowing back-door cuts, lay ups and easy jump shots that would make for a good YouTube video, but not a victory.

After a dramatic playoff loss to the Blazers, Harden vowed to improve his defense. Many laughed at this statement, but so far Harden is making good on his promise. Over his career, Harden’s points allowed per 100 possessions has been 106. This year Harden’s is 96, which is a vast improvement. If Harden can maintain or even improve on his defensive play, with his elite offensive arsenal, the Rockets will be a tough out. Maybe his beard really does have superpowers.

If nothing else, just look at Dwight Howard. This isn’t the same Dwight we’ve watched in recent years. He’s healthy and back to his 2008-09, form when he led the Orlando Magic to the NBA finals. As long as Howard is stays healthy along with Harden, and key players like Beverley and Jones coming back from injuries, the Rockets will be poised for a playoff push in a tough Western Conference.

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