ON A TEAR

3 under-the-radar reasons why the Rockets are terrorizing the NBA right now

P.J. Tucker has helped boost excellent bench play. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You might not have noticed, because despite the Texans struggles, football season is still upon us. And maybe you are still hung over from the Astros World Series run. And maybe, just maybe, you are not into the Rockets because...well, playoff James Harden looms. Charlie Pallilo pondered these factors in his weekly column.

What you have missed is a team that is off to a league-best 22-4 start, winning 11 in a row. They are unbeaten with Chris Paul in the lineup. Their average point total of 114.8 is second only to Golden State’s 117.0. Their point differential of plus-11 is tied with the Warriors for best in the league. (The closest team to either of them is Toronto -- at plus 7.3). They have one road loss all season. During the 11-game win streak, they are dominating opponents, beating nine of them by double digits with an average margin of victory of 17 points in that span.

The Warriors remain the team to beat, but this Rockets group is dominating in Golden State fashion, and still has room to improve. It remains to be seen if they can continue to play at this level and beat the Warriors in a seven-game series, but it is no longer ridiculous to think that could happen.  Last week Paul Muth broke down 3 key reasons for the great start. He focused on Harden, Paul and Clint Capela. But there are some other, less obvious reasons for the Rockets’ running roughshod at the moment.

Obviously, Harden, Paul, Capela and Eric Gordon are huge factors. Paul scored a season high 31 on Wednesday and is averaging 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game. He is also averaging just over 2 steals per game. Meanwhile, Harden continues to play at an MVP level, leading the league with 31.6 points per game, 5.1 rebounds and 9.4 assists and shooting a stellar 45.9 percent from the floor, including 40.2 from 3-point land. All Gordon has done is chip 18.9 PPG and provide a huge offensive boost off the bench. But there are  less obvious reasons the Rockets are playing so well.

Muth mentioned the play of  Capela in his piece as a key factor and the Rockets center has taken his game to another level, averaging 13.5 points and 11 rebounds per game, leads the league in shooting percentage at 68 percent and has improved his free-throw shooting from abysmal to almost passable. He had four blocks in the win over Charlotte, and is fifth in the league with 1.88 per game. It was his 10th game with three or more blocks; he only managed six last season in 65 games. His unselfish play fits in very well with the 3-point bombers on the roster, and his emergence is a huge reason for the Rockets’ success. But here are three more reasons that might not be so obvious:

1) The play of the bench

The biggest concern about the Paul trade was that it depleted what was a very strong bench last season. Patrick Beverly was a starter, but Lou Williams was a key bench component, and hopes were high for Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. But Daryl Morey went out and added Luc Mbah A Moute and P.J. Tucker, who are averaging 24 and 26 minutes per game respectively. Throw in veteran Nene, and the second unit with Gordon leading the way matches up with any bench in the league. This group has been much better than expected and is another reason the Rockets are on a roll. Plus/minus is not a great stat in basketball, but against the Hornets Wednesday night, Mbah A Moute was plus 13, Tucker plus 12, Nene plus 32 and Gordon plus 21. That wins you a lot of games.

2) Ryan Anderson

On the surface, he does not look better than last season, when he averaged 13.6 points per game and shot a respectable .403 from 3-point land. This year, he is averaging fewer points at 11.7 per game, but he is more efficient. He is taking fewer shots (8.9 per game compared to 10.7 per game last season) but has improved his shooting percentage from .418 to .455 and his 3-point percentage is up slightly at .407. The Rockets tried tirelessly to shed his contract in a desperate attempt to land Carmelo Anthony, but Anderson has been a nice fit, especially since Paul returned to the lineup. He has better shooting and 3-point percentages than Anthony, who is a much higher volume shooter. He understands his role, and is quietly thriving as a secondary option to the big scorers. In John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, he ranks only slightly lower than Anthony. That’s not to say Anthony is not a better player. But Anderson has been a perfect fit with this group and continued chemistry with Paul will only make him better.

3) Significant improvement on defense

This might be the single most important reason the Rockets are playing so well. The Rockets were 18th in defensive rating last year. This year they are fifth, according to basketballreference.com. A lot of that comes from Capela’s improvement and the addition of Paul, but the bench guys of Mbah A Moute and Tucker have brought a strong presence on the defensive end of the court as well. This is one area where the Rockets have been better than the Warriors (Golden State ranks 7th) and might be the biggest key come playoff time, and the biggest factor as to why they are playing so well.

Of course, success in December does not always translate into playoff success. The Rockets could easily improve as teammates become more familiar with Paul. They could also regress. Time will tell, and questions will remain until April, May and perhaps June. But if you have not been paying attention, now might be a good time to start.

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