The Rockets have played five games and won them all. They've taken both games of two road back-to-backs. And they look like they're just getting started. I got goosebumps a little bit when the Rockets pulled away in the fourth quarter. Rockets twitter was telling me not to jinx it, which tells you just how good they looked in their 108-91 win.
This was the first honest-to-God good game of the Rockets' season in terms of watchability, with the game being played at a high level and competitively, although the latter quality only lasted halfway into the fourth period. James Harden continues to put in more effort on the defensive end - especially in transition - than he ever has for the Rockets, without sacrificing his role in the offense. In fact, he has become this team's de facto point guard, not just their primary ball-handler. Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Canaan both have been deployed primarily as long-range shooters, spacing the floor with Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry and/or Big Papa. The beard continues to get to the basket at a very high rate, but he now kicks out to corner shooters nearly as much as he takes the shot, which makes the Rocket's offense devastating, especially when Dwight Howard's post game is working.
And it was working for Dwight, especially early on. He looks smooth and confident around the basket, and while I don't quite think he's at pre-back injury levels of physical dominance, he doesn't need to be with the way the offense is humming. If Harden can sustain the level of play he's displayed in these first five games, Dwight is officially the second-best player on the team, which would make him one of the best second bananas in the NBA. After all, he can pull this off (thanks to Tom Martin):
Harden flirted with a triple double tonight, finishing with 25 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, with two blocks just for fun. He was a dominant force on the court. Howard had 26 points and 10 boards. He was eating early, and when the defense started to bend towards him, that's when Harden laid waste to everything.
Trevor Ariza is still shooting the ever-loving crap out of the ball. He went 5-for-8 from deep tonight, and remains the best shooter in the NBA so far in terms of made threes. Even though Jason Terry had an off night, he combines with Isaiah Canaan, Kostas Papanikolaou and Troy Daniels to make sure that if there's one thing the bench will be able to do this year, it will be to shoot the basketball from long range and keep the ball moving.
As far as the big man rotation, it's a less rosy picture. Tarik Black and Terrence Jones both sat out with injury, and Joey Dorsey was unplayable. Donatas Motiejunas remains maddeningly inconsistent on both ends of the floor. Big Papa has been a decently capable small-ball 4 - he hasn't been a gaping hole on defense in that role so far, and his offense is already special: 15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, two blocks and no turnovers. It was the fifth game of his NBA career, and he didn't just hang with the veterans, he stood out. He is a real dark-horse Rookie of the Year candidate.
Without Chris Andersen tonight, the Heat couldn't really punish the Rockets inside, even with Chris Bosh having a good game. Again, once the Rockets face a team with legit big men, we'll see just how legitimate their title hopes are. But with offense like this, the Rockets are going to be fun. That much we can all agree on.
Defensively, the Rockets played well overall. They closed out hard on shooters, got back in transition, and switched well and decisively on pick-and-rolls. They weren't Bulls or Pacers-level good, but they were better than last year. Harden, as mentioned, has improved. Ariza is a big upgrade on defense over Parsons. Howard is still a force, Beverley is still a menace, and whoever's the fifth player on the floor hasn't mattered so far.
One last thing: the Rockets aren't always going to be hitting at such a high rate from outside, even with all of the open looks they're getting. They're still turning the ball over a lot, partially as a result of all the cross-court passing they're doing. But we'll start worrying about that when they lose a game. Or even come close.