After Chris Paul hit a jumper with :34 seconds left to put the Rockets up by seven points against the Bucks on Saturday night, he said three words that have never been uttered to James Harden since he first joined the Rockets in October 2012:
“I got you.”
By Harden’s lofty standards, he hasn’t been in peak form over his past five games. That said, there are legitimate reasons. Harden first suffered a leg injury on Dec. 9 in Portland with a bruised left calf, then likely compounded his issues by bruising his right knee (his other leg) with an awkward fall on Dec. 15 vs. San Antonio. Since then, Harden has worn extensive padding on both legs and has not looked as explosive.
In five games since the first injury in Portland, Harden has averaged 26.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 8.4 assists while shooting only 38.2% from the field and 32% from three-point range. If Harden had put up those numbers last year, the Rockets most likely go 1-4 in that stretch.
Fortunately, that is not this year’s team — which has gone 5-0 in those five games, and is now 25-4 on the season with a 14-game winning streak heading into Wednesday night’s home game vs. the Lakers.
This past week is exactly the reason I was convinced from the moment the Rockets traded for Paul in June that the pairing between Harden and Paul would work. If one guy has an off night — and even stars have off nights — he defers to the other player because their collective will to win overcomes everything else when the game is on the line.
Paul Takes the Lead
Meanwhile, as Harden gutted it out by playing injured, Paul became the team’s engine. In the first four of those five games, Paul averaged 26 points, 7.8 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 53.8% from the field and 45.7% from behind the arc — numbers that won him the Western Conference Player of the Week honor. And on Monday, right after receiving it, Paul put up a triple-double in Houston’s stirring 120-99 comeback win over Utah with 18 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds.
The last non-Harden Rocket to win Player of the Week was Goran Dragic in April 2012, and Dragic received that honor before it was even a pipe dream to think about getting Harden in a Rockets uniform. To put it in perspective, I was in middle school then, and now I’m in college! Dwight Howard never got one, Jeremy Lin never got one, and even Eric Gordon didn’t receive one even when he played lights out in the first half of the 2016-17 season.
Not only are Paul and Harden two of the league’s top seven or so players, but they’re also two of the smartest players in the league. This often runs in contrast to a certain point guard north of the Texas border (who shall not be named).
When either Paul or Harden realizes it is not his night, he is more than content to give the other the ball and let him work his magic while standing off the ball, ready to shoot a three if needed.
Rockets Willing to Sacrifice
That said, those three words don’t only apply to just those two players. Rather, they apply to the whole team. Every player on the Houston roster has had to sacrifice this year to make this a 25-4 team.
On Monday night against Utah, usual starting power forward Ryan Anderson went to head coach Mike D’Antoni and told him to start P.J. Tucker over him in the second half, citing matchups.
Normal teams don’t do that.
All of these players seem to understand that if they want to win a championship, they have to help their teammates — and team — by taking a back seat on some nights if they are not playing at their usual high level.
Besides Paul’s talent, the team’s willingness to sacrifice for the greater good appears to the biggest difference from last year’s group. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute gave up starting roles to come off the bench in Houston. Nene chose to stay for less money, despite having more money available elsewhere. When everyone is healthy, Ariza has occasionally lost playing time to the new reserve forwards.
Best of all, both Paul and Harden — each superstars in their own right — have set the right tone by showing a consistent willingness to give up the ball to players around them to make them better.
Right now, this Rockets team is an orchestra with a different conductor every night. On Saturday it was Paul, and on Monday vs. Utah, it was Eric Gordon’s turn (33 points, 12-of-18 FG).
On Wednesday, it’s entirely possible that Harden returns to that role. But if not, he finally knows someone can look him in the eye each time he’s on the court and confidently say, “I got you.”
Ian Mackillop is a native Houstonian, lifelong Houston sports fan, and a current University of Oklahoma student who is writing about the Rockets and Houston sports over his break between semesters. Follow him on Twitter. The column was edited by Ben DuBose.