- The Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul last season to help James Harden and give the Rockets a shot at beating the Golden State Warriors.
- Paul did just that on Tuesday by sending the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals with a 41-point, 7-rebound, 10-assist performance.
- Paul and the Rockets won’t be favored against the Warriors, but they’ll have a chance at beating them, and that’s as much as they can ask for.
The Houston Rockets are right where they wanted to be when they pulled off the trade for Chris Paul late last June.
After beating the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, the Rockets are in the Western Conference Finals for the second time in four years, set to square off with the Golden State Warriors.
The Rockets can’t ask for much more. The team has been open in saying that they built their team to challenge the Warriors and now they’ll get their chance.
That was the goal when the Rockets traded for Paul – give James Harden some help, a second playmaker who could take over on offense, hit the open man, and tighten up their perimeter defense. Harden wilted in last year’s playoffs after having to carry the Rockets offense. By landing Paul, the Rockets could split that work load and let both players alternate running things. Defenses would have to be that much more alert in covering two star guards, even when one didn’t have the ball.
Of course, there were some questions, too. Paul was seen as a perfect point guard for head coach Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system, but how would he handle splitting ball-handling duties with Harden? Likewise, the Rockets are the most analytically driven team in the league – they emphasize three-pointers, layups, and free throws, and eschew other, less efficient shots. Paul had long been a master of mid-range jumpers and point guard post-ups.
“I don’t wanna be stupid about it,” D’Antoni told Business Insider in November. “He’s one of the best ever from midrange shots.”
D’Antoni said the offense would be designed for Paul to take threes, but they would certainly not discourage him from getting to his spots, either.
“He’s gotta be Chris Paul,” D’Antoni said. “I can’t just say I wanna take a Hall of Fame point guard and make him into something else. But we do encourage him to take more threes – which doesn’t mean to take less twos, it means take more shots or don’t hesitate when you’re out there.”
In one of the defining performances of his career, Paul carried the Rockets down the stretch in Game 5 against a feisty Utah Jazz team. Paul scored or assisted on the Rockets’ final 18 points, showing off his array of moves in the process. He finished with 41 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists, and no turnovers.
On a night when Harden went 7-for-22 from the field for 18 points – Paul later said Harden was under the weather – Paul did exactly what Houston brought him into do.
The Paul-Harden-D’Antoni pairing couldn’t have gone smoother. In their first season together, there were never signs of internal conflict over shots, ball control or usage. Paul’s 2017-18 stats lined up almost exactly with his career stats and he actually took more field goal attempts per game than he did last season. His usage percentage remained the same. The team finished 65-17, the best record in the league, with the second-best offense and a top-10 defense.
Paul and D’Antoni also blended their shot selection, as D’Antoni said they would. Paul took more shots at the rim and more three-pointers than previous years, and while his percentage of shots from 16 feet to the three-point line decreased, his shots from 10-16 feet increased slightly, according to Basketball-Reference.
Teams are often defined by whether they win the championship or not. The Rockets have a monumental challenge ahead to take out the Warriors. But they have the opportunity, perhaps more than a puncher’s chance, and that’s what they set out for when they built their own super-team.