Jermaine Every: The Rockets look unstoppable
The Rockets made easy work of the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, 110-96. James Harden led with 41 points, distributed seven assists and contributed eight rebounds.
Wasn’t this Jazz team widely considered one of, if not the hottest team heading to the playoffs? Didn’t they just “upset” the OKC Thunder? Isn’t Donovan Mitchell the “it” rookie? The Rockets’ first-round opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, would have been a No. 3 or 4 seed until Jimmy Butler got hurt and missed 20-plus games down the stretch.
Without question, and you can look it up, the Rockets are the best team in the Association. Harden unquestionably is a lock for MVP. General Manager Daryl Morey’s trade for Chris Paul has worked to a T. Less celebrated acquisitions like PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, and even lesser Gerald Green have provided dependable bench depth to a tightened playoff rotation.
The offense has been able to overcome infrequent subpar performances from its best scorers. Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon all have hard off-nights. Yet this team has found ways to win. People lost their minds in Game 1 against Minnesota when Paul foundered and the Rockets narrowly won by 3. They’ve also won games when Harden struggled, like he did in Game 2 against the Timberwolves. Capela was the leading scorer in Game 5 of that series. When Harden, Paul and Capela played together this season … 46-4.
Offense may be their calling card, but defense is where the Rockets improved most this season. Tucker and Mbah a Moute brought defensive versatility and intensity. Paul, a former All-Defensive mainstay, turned up pressure in the backcourt. Capela has matured into an above-average rim protector. Gone are the days when Trevor Ariza was the only stopper. Heck, even Harden got into the defense act.
The real challenge will come in the inevitable Conference Finals showdown against the Golden State Warriors. Can the Rockets beat the defending NBA champions?
Some emphatically say no. I tentatively say yes. Both teams have offenses that tilt the scoreboard with ease. Both teams can play good defense and can win low-scoring games. However, both have Achilles heels that can be exploited.
The Warriors turn the ball over too often, which can lead to more brain farts. The Rockets stars are prone to poor shooting nights. We’ve have sneak peeks at “Elimination James” and “Playoff Chris” already this postseason. So far, the Rockets have succeeded despite these potential landmines.
It will come down to health and role players. The Rockets have been more fortunate than the Warriors in the health department. Steph Curry’s knee is just rounding into playing shape. The Rockets have a decisive bench advantage. Who’d you rather? Nick “Swaggy P” Young or Eric Gordon? Keven Looney or Mbah a Moute? You see where I’m going with this? The Rockets’ bench every time.
Right hand raised, yes, I believe the Rockets will defeat the Warriors. That’s not delusion or fanboy talking. The Warriors are an all-time great team. They have the firepower to overcome any pitfall, any team in their path. But, and this is a bigger but than Kim Kardashian’s, the Rockets are catching the Warriors in a vulnerable state. The Rockets have caught lightning in a bottle. The Warriors are ready to be had.