The scoring exploits have become so commonplace for Rockets guard James Harden that he seems to hardly bat an eyelash when someone relays to him the latest of his extraordinary achievements.
For Harden and, by proxy, Houston, the latest accomplishment came Monday in New Orleans when Harden poured in 39 points in a 122-116 victory over the Pelicans that extended the Rockets’ winning streak to four games after splitting their first six of the season. With an NBA-leading 373 points this season, Harden has produced the most points through 10 games in the past 50 seasons.
The Rockets’ championship aspirations are intrinsically tied to Harden, and when he is at his very best, so is Houston, which will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday at Toyota Center.
“I just go out there and play basketball,” Harden told reporters. “I just try to be as assertive as I can, as aggressive as I can. We’re really pissed about losing those three games. That’s what we’re pissed about.
“Defensively we’re getting better. We’ve been really, really good these last few games and that’s our mindset, just continue to get better individually. I’ve done some pretty good things individually. The most important thing is winning and finding ways to get better.”
The Rockets have managed baby steps defensively during their streak, inching from dead last in the NBA in points allowed per game to 26th following their win in New Orleans.
Surrendering 105.5 points per game during their four-game winning streak won’t evoke memories of the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, but with Houston still pacing the league in scoring, that level of defensive effort should prove sufficient until the Rockets find some reasonable combination of cohesion and fitness to carry them.
That a veteran-laden team could assign poor conditioning as part of the reason behind their sluggish defensive start should be cause for concern. Yet Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni seemed to cling to the fact that his team is improving on that end of the court as the games accumulate.
“We’re getting in shape, we’re getting better,” D’Antoni said.
“It’s a lot of good things, a lot of bad things that we’ve got to work through.”
Describing the Clippers as antithetical to Houston might serve as an exaggeration, but they have sprinted from the gate to a 7-3 record despite not having forward Paul George available and despite Kawhi Leonard having missed two games. The Clippers opened the season with lofty expectations defensively, a narrative largely based on the presence of George, Leonard and guard Patrick Beverley.
The Clippers haven’t yet fielded a top-10 defense but when they need to tighten the screws against elite opponents, they have showcased a timely ability to do precisely that. Locked into a fistfight with the strong-willed Toronto Raptors on Monday, the Clippers surrendered only 10 points in the fourth quarter while pulling out a 98-88 win in an effort reflecting their personality.
“It was just a defensive game,” Beverley said. “It’s still early in the season. Shots that we usually make in our sleep aren’t falling so we have to lay our hat on defense. And that’s what we did.”
The Rockets, short-handed with Eric Gordon (right knee surgery) and Danuel House Jr. (bruised back) sidelined, will test the Clippers’ defensive vigor. The Clippers are likely to be undaunted.
–Field Level Media