Ever since James Harden came over to the Houston Rockets before the 2012-2013 season, GM Daryl Morey has been looking for a second superstar to pair alongside him. And he hasn’t totally been without success.
He brought Dwight Howard over in the 2013 offseason as a free agent, and though that relationship wound up ending in a mini-Dwightmare, they did reach a high-water mark of the Western Conference Finals in 2015, where they lost in five games to the Golden State Warriors.
After the Dwightmare ended with Howard opting out of his contract in the summer of 2016, the search for a Robin to Harden’s Batman continued, this time culminating in the trade for Chris Paul in the summer of 2017.
That relationship got off to a smashing success, leading the Rockets to a franchise-best 65-17 record and once again culminating with a high-water mark of the Western Conference Finals, where they would again lose to the Warriors, this time in seven games. They were likely a Paul pulled hammy or some more consistent officiating away from the NBA Finals.
In between, there were near-misses, like with Chris Bosh, and never-were-going-to-happen rumors, like with LeBron James.
But with Paul looking every bit his age in the 2018-2019 season (though he’s since looked reborn), and also in the midst of some rumored friction with Harden, Morey had another trick up his sleeve, and it may turn out to be his best one yet.
On July 16, 2019, he sent Paul along with two first-round draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for former MVP Russell Westbrook, and initially, there were groans among the Rockets fan base, including from this blog and from this writer.
Feelings didn’t improve when Russ got off to an uneven start and the Rockets were still mostly relying night-in and night-out on Harden’s ability to go total supernova, which, as we’ve seen in the past, is an ultimately unsustainable approach for 82 games plus playoffs.
But as Russ got healthier (he had offseason hand surgery, which he re-injured, along with an arthroscopic knee scope this past summer) and more acclimated, and the Rockets traded Clint Capela to open the floor more for Russ’s preternatural athleticism, Houston may finally have the second superstar to complement Harden that they’ve been searching for since The Beard arrived eight seasons ago.
In last night’s huge nationally televised contest on the road against a 41-17 Boston Celtics team, Harden had a subpar night, going for just 21 points on 7-24 shooting. It was the type of game that in the past, especially considering the level of competition, the Rockets were almost certain to lose.
But the best player on the court was Westbrook. He finished with 41 points on 16-27 shooting, and went just 1-2 on threes, illustrating how much his decision-making has improved, and how Houston’s system is now designed to get Russ rolling downhill and through space at all times. He hasn’t taken more than 4 threes in a game since January 15, and he’s averaged under 2 attempts from deep per night over that same time frame.
In last night’s game, he also finished with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals, and he’s been one of the best players in the NBA of late.
Russell Westbrook's month of February:— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 1, 2020
8-1 Record pic.twitter.com/bPdujdXEup
The Rockets have now won six games in a row, stand at 39-20 on the season, and are just a single game behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets for the second seed in the Western Conference standings.
Westbrook’s energy and physical play has been the catalyst for the Rockets and is the perfect foil to Harden’s more laid-back approach. Harden will lull you to sleep before either sneaking by you or cashing the step-back if you’re not up tight. Russ goes at you like a sledgehammer, over and over, until something finally breaks. He’s changed the very personality of this Houston team, something Boston’s Brad Stevens illustrated to ESPN following the game:
“Their physical presence is real. I think that when they turned it up a notch physically in the second half, we got stagnant because they were imposing their will on the game, and they can do that.
”It’s not a knock on our guys necessarily by any means. It’s just that that’s the strength of their team.”
Physicality is not a word typically associated with the Rockets teams of the past decade, and the most physical Houston team in recent memory was the 65-win squad that trotted out multiple lengthy forwards to put the clamps down defensively in Houston’s switching scheme.
The Rockets have that again with Robert Covington (who’s been every bit as good as advertised and finished last night’s game with a 16-point, 16-rebound double-double to go along with 3 more blocks) P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, Jeff Green, and even though they didn’t play last night, Mike D’Antoni also has Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll to throw at teams.
That’s a lot of length and a lot of good defenders that can play physical, but the catalyst for that part of the Rockets’ newfound personality is Russ. He’s brought the attitude, the snarl that the Rockets have really lacked in the past.
Houston can beat you in a multitude of ways now — they can out-shoot you when guys like Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and Ben McLemore are hitting their shots, they can tighten the clamps defensively when it matters most behind top-flight defenders Covington and Tucker alongside a small army of switching forwards, they can flatten you behind a James Harden explosion, and now they can overcome you with physicality behind Westbrook’s athleticism.
It’s already too late for this team to better the 65 regular-season wins achieved during the Harden-Paul era, but as the Rockets come together at the right time, without an all-time Dubs team standing in their way, and the league yet to figure out a true counter for the Pocket Rockets approach, they have a very real chance to best that squad’s end result.
If the other high-water mark Rockets teams of the Harden era ultimately felt like occasionally awkward fits making it work, this pairing is two guys who are true friends.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook embrace postgame pic.twitter.com/VsWOVqk69z— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) March 1, 2020
And that, more than anything, might just be what could lead this newest version of the Houston Rockets to the promised land.