The road to a championship is never easy, especially in the west, but the Houston Rockets were built to beat one team, the defending champs.
The Golden State Warriors are the overwhelming favorites to repeat this year. And with the Cleveland Cavaliers looking like they might be a bit diminished without Kyrie Irving, the Rockets might be the only team standing in their way.
Here are some of the things necessary to dethrone the defending champs.
Defense wins championships, nothing new here. The Warriors might be the greatest offensive team of all time, but what puts them over the top is their ability to play lock-down defense on command. In the past five seasons, there is one constant in the top five defensive ratings, the Warriors.
How many times have the Rockets been in the top five? Zero. That will not do against this all time great team. Offensively, Houston may be just as good as Golden State but they will not be champions anytime soon if they don’t put effort on the defensive end.
Yes, guarding Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry at the same time is a task no one wants to face. But it is not just about stopping them from scoring, the thing is playing physical basketball, make them work for every shot. The team has defensively oriented players in P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Clint Capela, they should be better than their currently 14th ranked defense.
If they start playing defense right now, it will help the team accustom themselves to that side of the game, this responsibility falls on coach Mike D’Antoni. He has to make sure his players defend every single possession, no breaks allowed.
This team is as entertaining as any with their three-point offense and swashbuckling swagger, but that will not be enough if the goal is the championship.
Keeping stars healthy
Injuries happen, that’s understandable. But precautions must be taken to try to avoid them as best as possible.
James Harden and Chris Paul are undeniably the best point guard pairing in the league, and they have meshed quicker than most expected. But the key will be keeping them both ready and primed when the playoffs come.
Paul has been dealing with many injuries these past few seasons so his minutes should be carefully monitored. Harden has his hamstring strain to deal with and it would be best if he only returned once completely healed.
The Rockets definitely have a shot at the title, but if one of their All-Star point guards suffers an injury late in the season, they will have zero chance to go all the way. Whether it be dietary changes or strengthening training, prioritizing their two superstar’s health is a must.
Help from role players
Harden and Paul will show up to play, no doubt there, but they will need help.
Golden State’s advantage over most teams, apart from two MVP’s in their primes, is their depth. Andre Iguodala, Nick Young, Shaun Livingston, and David West are all a big part of the team’s success. The Rockets will need to somewhat match this with their own bench.
Eric Gordon is offensively a threat against anyone, but players such as Capela, Moute and Tucker will have to contribute in some way. Most of the time Paul will be orchestrating the second unit, he will need those around him to make their shots in order to space the floor for him so he can be the floor general that he needs to be.
Beating the juggernaut that is Golden State will take more than most teams have, but the Rockets have two future Hall of Famers, who are capable of delivering dimes to any teammates. The only thing asked from the rest of the team will be to make those open shots, as it will make the big two’s job a bit easier.
The pressure to win weighs more heavily on Harden and Paul of course, but they will need big moments from the rest of the team.
Harden must perform when it matters
Pieces have been added and the team has improved, make no mistake though, this is still Harden’s team.
The perennial MVP candidate has a reputation of not performing in big games, and it might be well earned. Harden has not yet proven he can be clutch and although a great talent, has tended to disappear when needed most.
Last season fatigue definitely played a part, which is why the front office traded for Paul. There are no excuses this year, Harden will have to be the man when called upon in order to carry this team to where it wants to be.
That doesn’t mean taking the last shot every night or scoring 50 a game. Harden must make plays when the game is close and time is clicking, he is the man on this team, he should perform like it.
Paul will be there to help him, but there will be moments when the ball will be in Harden’s hands at the end of games. Those moments will define whether Harden will be remembered as a great player or a great regular season player.
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