The Rockets have played five games and won them all. They've taken all four games of two road back-to-backs. And they look like they're just getting started. They've been so good, Rockets fans told me not to write this article. Why does last night's win feel so significant?
Let's start with the star. 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 Rockets' 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 (The Rockets are fourth in the NBA so far in points created by assists per game).
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):
Howard had 26 points and 10 boards. He was eating early, and when the defense started to bend towards him, that's when the beard laid waste to everything.
Harden flirted with a triple double last night, finishing with 25 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, with two blocks just for fun. The early-season numbers induce giddiness: Harden is tied for third in the league in generating points for the whole team based on his drives to the basket, behind Monta Ellis and Brandon Knight, and tied with Reggie Jackson. James is averaging 7.4 assists this season, but that doesn't even tell the full story.
He also averages 2.7 secondary assists per game, which is basketball's term for a hockey assist. That's fourth in the league. His overall defensive rating is 95.9 so far, which is a sparkling mark. (All of the above stats thanks to NBA.com's player tracking data.)
Some of these numbers will regress, especially that last mark. But all of these early indicators suggest he's becoming a complete player right in front of our eyes. Just to remind all of you, Harden turned 25 in August, so improvement year-over-year isn't just hoped for, it should be expected.
Trevor Ariza is still shooting the ever-living crap out of the ball. He went 5-for-8 from deep last night, and remains the best shooter in the NBA so far in terms of made threes. His True Shooting percentage is an unconscionable 80.9 percent. Even though Terry had an off night, he combines with 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 last night 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 against the Heat.
It was the fifth game of Big Papa's 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. His elite court vision has been on full display to this point (when he's on the floor, he accounts for a full 25 percent of the team's assists), and he is going to give the opposing team's announcers fits all year with pronouncing his name, because they'll have to say it all year.
Let's keep it simple: he loves it when you call him Big Papa. It's all right. To Kevin McHale's credit, the head coach has rightly seen that Big Papa is going to be the Rockets' sixth man this year, and the biggest answer to the bench questions that have plagued Rockets fans. Amidst all this, Big Papa hasn't really found his shooting stroke yet.
So, a reality check: Without Chris Andersen last night, the Heat couldn't really punish the Rockets inside, even with Chris Bosh having a good game. This has been a recurring theme in the five games Houston has played. Again, once the Rockets face a team with legit big men (looking at you, Spurs tomorrow), 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 have played well overall. They're closing out hard on shooters, getting back in transition (especially Harden), and switching well and decisively on pick-and-rolls. They're third in the league in terms of points allowed, behind Memphis and Golden State. In terms of defensive rating, they're fifth. In terms of more specific numbers (blocks, steals, field goal percentage) they're top ten, but not quite elite.
They won't be last year's Bulls or Pacers-level good, but they're already 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 starter 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.