September 18, 2021

Are Rockets the most dangerous team in NBA bubble?

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NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon believes the Houston Rockets are the most dangerous team inside the NBA bubble. Huw Hopkins examines the Rockets’ offensive potency.

Tuesday night’s NBA games live on Sky Sports

  • Nets @ Bucks | Sky Sports Arena | 6:30pm
  • Mavericks @ Kings | Sky Sports Action | 7pm
  • Magic @ Pacers | Sky Sports Arena | 11pm
  • Rockets @ Trail Blazers | Sky Sports Arena | 2am

Did you see the graphic that was put up on screen when the Houston Rockets played against the Boston Celtics in a scrimmage before the NBA’s restart last week?

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you missed it, because the on-court action featured an awesome alley-oop slam from Russell Westbrook, which felt like a perfect metaphor. Despite the ridiculous stats of James Harden this year, his achievements might actually be being somewhat overlooked.

The graphic stated Harden ranks first in a number of categories this season: points per game, total points, field goals made, field goal attempts, three-point field goals made, three-points field goal attempts, free throws made, free-throw attempts and points off turnovers. The man is a scoring machine.

Last season he averaged 36 points and everyone figured that was his apex. There’s no way he could out-score himself, especially after the Rockets traded for a player with such a heavy usage rate in Westbrook, right?

But in the month of November, Harden averaged 39.5 points per game. It didn’t matter if he was playing at home or away this season. In fact, his output on the road was one point per game better than in front of his own crowd.

James Harden of the Houston Rockets 4:40
Check out James Harden’s best plays from the 2019-20 NBA season to date

This didn’t automatically translate to a rollicking success. It’s not that the Rockets had become worse without Chris Paul, who they shipped to Oklahoma City in return for Westbrook, it’s just that the new fit just looked awkward at times.

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But by the time 2020 rolled around, the Rockets were creating more off-ball looks for Westbrook, with Harden running the point guard position, and Clint Capela’s minutes were being reduced until the Rockets decided to just get rid of their only real center at the February trade deadline.

This was around the time that Harden’s scoring plummeted. OK, ‘plummeted’ is the wrong word. He was still averaging 29.5 points per game between January and March, but it felt like he was struggling at times. There was the night when he hit just three of his 13 shots against the Minnesota Timberwolves and finished with just 12 points, or when the Lakers held him to 14.

Teams had started double-teaming Harden the moment the ball touched his hands, even before he crossed halfcourt. It worked briefly as a way to reduce his impact, but Houston were still managing to win games.

Russell Westbrook prepares to attack against the Milwaukee Bucks
Image: Westbrook prepares to attack against the Milwaukee Bucks

Head coach Mike D’Antoni made some changes to help in this area. Instead of playing Westbrook on the wing – where he would miss nearly 75 per cent of his three-point shots – the Rockets started playing Capela fewer minutes to run a ‘micro ball’ line-up in which all five players were 6ft 7in or shorter. D’Antoni put Westbrook in the corner, and he became a terrifying back-door cutting threat.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook walk off the court together 0:09
James Harden feeds Russell Westbrook for huge alley-oop dunk for the Houston Rockets

This helped Westbrook average 32.9 points in January and February, as opposed to 23.8 per game in October-December. He also performed in a similar way to Harden, by becoming a better scorer on the road – from 26.9 to 28.3 points per game.

Rockets legend and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon was already excited about Houston’s chances this year, but he believes the neutral location of Disney World will be an even greater benefit.

Hakeem Olajuwon corrals a rebound against the Milwaukee Bucks
Image: Hakeem Olajuwon corrals a rebound against the Milwaukee Bucks

While launching the two-year countdown to the Commonwealth Games last week in Birmingham, two-time NBA champion Olajuwon spoke about Harden’s ability to score anywhere and Westbrook’s intensity.

“The bubble is like when you go for an NCAA or AAU tournament when all the teams are assembled in the same place,” Olajuwon told Sky Sports NBA. “You play until you have a champion.

“With James Harden and Westbrook, you have two players… pick-up games are what they do. Seeing those two guys together, in that environment, I think the Rockets are the most dangerous team.”

It’s fair to say opponents started to figure out the Rockets’ new line-up before the March 11 season suspension. The Rockets lost four of their last five, but when the NBA officially returned on July 30, Harden wasted no time reminding everyone that he is the best scorer in the league since Wilt Chamberlain.

James Harden of the Houston Rockets reacts during overtime against the Dallas Mavericks 1:59
James Harden scored 49 points rebounds in a the Rockets’ overtime win over Dallas

He scored 49 in the Rockets’ first restart game, an overtime win against the Dallas Mavericks, with nine rebounds, eight assists, along with three steals and three blocks, and just one turnover.

Harden cooled slightly in the Rockets’ game against the defensively-minded Milwaukee Bucks but he had already set the tone for Westbrook and Danuel House to follow. The Rockets launched an NBA record 61 three-point attempts in the game.

 Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks on August 2, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. 2:44
Highlights of the Milwaukee Bucks’ game against the Houston Rockets at The Arena in Orlando

Instead, ‘The Beard’ led the way on defense with six steals, including a timely nab from Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final two minutes that led to an open Westbrook lay-up to put Houston ahead.

The Rockets entered the bubble as the owners of the West’s sixth seed with the potential to face off against the Denver Nuggets, a team they split the season series against.

The other potential opening round opponents are the Utah Jazz – who Houston defeated twice in their three-game regular season series- and the Oklahoma City Thunder – victors against the Rockets in two of their three meetings.

Houston have not had an issue reaching the playoffs in recent years, it’s what happens when they get that has been the issue.

Russell Westbrook put in a vintage display against the Minnesota Timberwolves 17:40
Check out Russell Westbrook’s best plays, dunks and clutch shots from the 2019-20 season to date

In these early restart games, Westbrook and Harden are firing on all cylinders and living up to Olajuwon’s hype.

But this is still the regular season. Their true test – and that of the Rockets’ ‘small ball’ philosophy – awaits when the playoffs arrive and knock-out basketball begins.

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