The Houston Rockets extended their winning streak to 10 games and went 21-4 for the season when they swatted aside New Orleans on Tuesday.
They have the league’s best record by some distance and have already beaten reigning champions Golden State, so they will fear nobody going forwards. Their All Star backcourt has been obliterating opponents of late and Houston has the NBA’s best average scoring margin. They are beating teams by an average of 11.2 points and playing with power, style and panache. They could well be on the brink of glory this season as they have emerged as genuine challengers to the Warriors’ throne.
The NBA is an arms race nowadays and the Golden State juggernaut cruised to the title last season after adding Kevin Durant to an already sensational roster, so Houston had to respond.
They finished third in the west and reached the conference semi-finals last time around, but needed to do something drastic to catch up with Golden State. Steve Kerr’s team had already broken records and earned plenty of success thanks to the frightening skills of Stephen Curry, Klay Thomas and Draymond Green, but were disappointed to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals, so they signed Durant. They became unplayable last season and destroyed the Cavs in the Finals, earning their second title in three years.
Houston’s response was bold and brilliant as they signed Chris Paul, the best true point guard of his generation, and paired him with James Harden to form the most terrifying backcourt in the NBA. Suddenly, Houston joined the game’s elite and Golden State had something to think about it the west.
Harden went close to being named regular season MVP last season, only to be pipped to the post by Russell Westbrook, but this season he is daring everyone not to give it to him. He leads the league in points per game (32) and is second for assists (9.5) and has been playing like a man possessed in recent weeks. He has made 110 three pointers this season, 14 more than closest rival Thompson, and has even added defensive steel to his game.
Bringing in Paul has proved a masterstroke as Harden can rest occasionally and let his teammate bring the ball up, which preserves his energy better for dynamic offensive bursts and helping out in defence.
Paul’s presence has made Houston more organised and disciplined defensively as he is a reigning All Defensive first teamer. But Trevor Azira has also been superb and the team is now fifth in the league for defensive efficiency. Last season it was 17th, showing a huge improvement, which can also be attributed to coach Mike D’Antoni divesting defensive duties to assistants Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers. Ryan Anderson has bounced back and is playing some of the best basketball of his career, while Eric Gordon goes from strength to strength.
We appear to have entered a golden age for Houston’s sports teams after the Astros won baseball’s World Series in November. The city’s hurricane-hit denizens have should plenty more to cheer about when it comes to hoops as the Rockets have been absolutely obliterating their rivals of late.
If you check the basketball betting odds at Oddschecker you will see that Houston is now third favourite to win the NBA title this season at $10 to $10.50. That puts the Rockets behind only the Warriors and the Cavs, and they look great value to seize glory this season.
They have a monumental task ahead of them if they are to topple Golden State in the west and then go on to beat either Cleveland or the Boston Celtics in the Finals, but fans can dare to dream as they are the hottest team in the league and constantly improving.
And if it does not quite happen for them this season, they should be a shoo-in for the Championship next season if rumours are to be believed. The gossip columns are abuzz with talk that James could be set to quit Cleveland and move to Houston to form the super team to end all super teams alongside Harden and Paul.
James knows all about super teams, as the was part of Miami’s all-conquering Big Three alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He singlehandedly made Cleveland one of the best teams in the NBA when he returned to his hometown team.
They lost out to Golden State in the 2015 Finals but snatched victory in 2016.
They were denied last season by the Durant-inspired Warriors, so they responded by bringing in Wade and Isaiah Thomas to form a super team of their own. The Cavs are playing well, but they are second best to Boston in the east at the moment, and James is likely to move next summer. If he were to line up alongside Harden and Paul, nobody could stop Houston, not even the Warriors. Either way, exciting times lie ahead for Houston Rockets fans and they could soon win their first NBA title since 1995.
Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and has been covering the NBA for many years.