Thursday, May 3, 2018

James Harden And Chris Paul Are Ready To Bring An NBA Championship Back To Houston

The Houston Rockets have made no secret about their confidence in their championship aspirations. Harden's slightly more ambiguous, though still clear declaration that they are worthy challengers to the Warriors' reign and believe they can win a postseason series, as they have the regular-season series.

The idea, however, drives more than conversation. The Rockets have cited their pursuit of a championship for everything from a determination to improve a team that already has the league's best record to their acceptance of diminished roles as general manager Daryl Morey added players for Mike D'Antoni to squeeze into his rotation. They have been on a united mission to be the best.

In some ways, it's to be expected. If the Rockets did not think they could win a championship after having this seasons best record, that would be more newsworthy than them continuing to like their chances right? Most would say so.

During the regular season Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said - ”The biggest thing is try to develop championship habits," "We just have to get better. Winning will come if we do that.

"We don't necessarily talk every day about our bigger goal, but developing good habits, we do."

They do refer to that as "championship habits" and D'Antoni does not cringe when his players confidently cite that goal. He even said last month, when discussing how the offensive style that was ridiculed in Phoenix is now widely accepted, "We could've won it back then, we could win it now."

Early skeptics of the Houston Rockets' superstar guard pairing frequently pointed to crunch time, predicting that James Harden and Chris Paul would have problems figuring out how to share the ball with the game on the line.

The basketball world had to wait almost two months to get its first glimpse of the clutch dynamic with the Rockets' ball-dominant duo due to a knee injury that sidelined Paul and Houston's dominance upon his return. It finally happened on Dec. 9, when the Rockets trailed the Portland Trail Blazers by three points with five minutes remaining.

Well, let's just say the skeptics were proved wrong that night in Portland, and ever since.

"It was layup, layup, layup, 3-ball," Harden said after the Rockets finished off the 124-117 win by ripping off 21 points in the final five minutes, all scored or assisted by Paul or Harden. Houston was 7-of-7 from the floor in that closing stretch.
Harden and Paul haven't just hushed any doubt about whether they can coexist in crunch time; they've been great as a clutch duo.

Rockets 108, opponents 59 is the cumulative score in just 31 clutch minutes that Harden and Paul have played together, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Rockets' offensive efficiency in that time: 161.7 points per 100 possessions. How's that for Clutch City?

Those remarkable numbers make Harden and Paul the most prolific closing 1-2 punch of the more than 5,700 duos who have played at least 30 clutch minutes together since the start of the 2007-08 season, as far back as ESPN Stats & Information's access to on-court/off-court data reaches.

MVP front-runner James Harden says he believes this season is "the year" for the Houston Rockets.

"This is the year. For sure," Harden told ESPN when asked what his expectations for the Rockets were this season.

"This is probably the best team I've ever been a part of, from top to bottom. The chemistry that we have, included with the coaching staff -- I mean, we're having a lot of fun."

"I'm happy," Harden said, "happier than I've ever been."

Winning will do that, but the Rockets believe the attitude that had filled their locker room since training camp led to the winning, rather than having all the good feelings coming from the success on the floor.

Two seasons removed from the tension-filled slide to 41-41, one regular-season since the Game 6 meltdown that eliminated the Rockets last spring, the Rockets have rolled through the season content not just with roles or success, but at ease with the aspirations they openly shared well before the goals were matched with their record.

"The locker room, how they go about winning, it's fun," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They make it fun. They're not taking things for granted. They're always trying to learn, trying to get better. That's always great to see. Being around them, they're pulling in the same direction.

As with most things with the Rockets & their success that began with Harden, CP3 & their easy partnership. This wasn't an arranged union. They put it together, beginning with an on-court conversation in LA, then with the weeks that led to Paul telling the Clippers he intended to sign with the Rockets as a free agent, but would be open to opting into his contract if they worked out a trade.

From their summer workouts together to the players' minicamps they organized and the seamless run through the season, the relationship has been so easy that if they scripted one their insurance commercials, no one would believe it.

"I don't mean to sound too mushy or whatnot, but it was like love at first sight," Harden said. "Once last summer hit and we just started hanging out and how competitive he really is and how much he loves putting that work in, being in the gym in the same way. So, it kind of just made sense. Obviously everything else from off the court, hanging out, bowling — he loves to bowl — dinner. It was meant to be. And then when you add other guys around it, it kind of brings us together."

Paul says ”It's about communication. Good or bad, we try to communicate. Then, everything that we do is genuine. We have the tough conversations whether it's in game or whatnot. It's just a trust. We've been all building this together.

"It's been unbelievable. I think a lot of credit goes to the team, the coaching staff, everybody, taken the highs and the lows. I think a lot of people forget, we were on a five-game losing streak this year. For us, it's just coach's motto, 'so what, what's next.'

 Harden said he has never felt as comfortable as he has this season. As with the Rockets as a whole, he said much of his play comes from how at ease he is with his team and his responsibilities, rather than feeling good because of how he has played. That, Harden said, goes back to the like-mindedness of a team he considers the best of his career.

"All of us have been on really good teams, but also some not so good teams," Harden said. "One of the reasons we cherish this moment so much is we know what losing feels like. We know how good it is to have this opportunity for all of us.

"A very motivated team, very motivated from top to bottom. But we don't put too much pressure on ourselves. We just go out there, compete at a high level and good things happen for us. We're all in this together. That's what it's about. We talk about it every, single day. We're all in it together. And if one fails, we all fail. So, we're going to ride this thing out together."