The Houston Rockets weren’t going to finish the season with a 66-game winning streak.
So no, it isn’t a cause for concern that the Rockets saw their 14-game winning streak come to an end in a 122-116 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night, a game that saw the Lakers get 38 points from rookie Kyle Kuzma and 21 off the bench from journeyman Corey Brewer.
The cause for concern was Chris Paul limping back to the locker room early in the fourth quarter with an injury the team initially described as a “sore left leg.” After the game, Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni assuaged some of the initial fears by saying Paul suffered an adductor strain, as opposed to another issue with his left knee that has already sidelined him for 14 games this season.
But the sight of him trudging to the locker room and being ruled out for the night was enough for any NBA fan watching to immediately think the worst. It served as a stark reminder that for just how great the Rockets have been this season – and make no mistake, they’ve been great – their margin of error to truly challenge the Golden State Warriors for NBA supremacy is razor-thin.
This, of course, is the risk in going all-in on a 32-year-old point guard, as the Rockets did in acquiring Paul last summer. But as Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey told ESPN in the wake of the Warriors’ NBA championship last season, there was only one way to move forward in this era dominated by Golden State’s all-star quartet.
“We are used to long odds,” Morey said. “If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”
Two weeks later, Morey traded for Paul, stunning the NBA with a stealth maneuver even before the start of free agency.
The acquisition immediately brought with it questions of on-court chemistry. How would two ball-dominant players fit together? How would Paul handle playing in a system which seemed to conflict with some of the ways in which Paul had built a first ballot Hall of Fame career?
Then, when Paul sat out the end of Houston’s season-opening road win over the Golden State Warriors and then missed the next 14 games, the other lingering question – whether Paul would be healthy enough to be a real factor – came into play. But since Paul returned to the lineup, those concerns have been replaced with widespread awe at the way the Rockets have played.
Not surprisingly, having 48 minutes of Hall of Fame point guard play in D’Antoni’s system has made the Rockets into an unholy terror for opponents. That has been particularly true in the time Paul has been on the court without Harden. In those 167 minutes, the Rockets have outscored their opponents by a staggering 107 points, as Paul has been devastating in leading Houston’s attack against the opposition’s bench.
Paul’s play, combined with Harden playing like the front-runner for this year’s MVP, the improvement of fourth-year center Clint Capela and the seamless integration of rugged defenders P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to go with Houston’s already scintillating offensive attack, has turned the Rockets into a juggernaut that boast the NBA’s best record even after Wednesday’s loss. Houston looks like a team capable of not only finishing the season with the best record in the Western Conference – something the Rockets clearly would like to do – but even potentially giving Golden State a run for conference supremacy.
Doing so, however, will require Paul to be healthy and able to continue wreaking havoc. Without him, Houston will revert to what it was last season: a very good team, but one that relied far too heavily on Harden for all of its offense, and doesn’t have a coherent backup plan.
That was the point of getting Paul in the first place: to allow Houston to diversify its portfolio, and allow it diverse ways of attacking opposing defenses – not to mention alleviating the burden of Harden having to carry the load for 48 minutes a night when it matters.
Golden State, meanwhile, continues to roll, picking up its 10th straight win last night against the Memphis Grizzlies to move within a half-game of Houston for the best record in the league. With the Warriors’ run coming with Stephen Curry missing six games and Draymond Green missing five of the last six only underscores the unique place the Warriors find themselves compared to the rest of the league – Houston included.
Few teams can go on a 10-game winning streak when it has one star sidelined. Good luck trying to do so with two missing – or, in the case of Golden State, having five rotation players sitting out against Memphis with a variety of ailments.
As Morey signaled he would, the Rockets have upped their risk profile this season – and, in doing so, have given themselves a shot at doing something special. But as Paul limped back to the locker room Wednesday night, it was a reminder of how fragile those odds are.
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