More importantly, without Paul, the Rockets went out in the second round of the playoffs last season, losing by 39 points to a San Antonio Spurs team that was missing Kawhi Leonard.
The Rockets can accept that Paul’s recent return to health and the starting lineup might affect their record and Harden’s statistics, as long as it affects their playoffs fortune too.
Fans are as infatuated with how Harden’s and Paul’s past ball dominance will blend as much as the Rockets are infatuated with shooting more three-point shots than two-pointers. The All-Star pairing is more of a solution than a problem.
Houston will have an elite playmaker on the floor for 48 minutes in tight games with D’Antoni keeping Paul or Harden in the game throughout. This is not a case of melding two gunners. These are two willing playmakers who can lighten the workload and ease the shot difficulty for each other.
And they wanted this. Harden recruited Paul from that brotherhood of elite-echelon players. Paul pushed the Clippers so he could be traded to Houston and join D’Antoni, whose USA Basketball relationship with Paul was so close that Paul convinced D’Antoni’s son, Michael, to switch college plans from Duke to Wake Forest. Michael graduated there and remains there for a master’s program.
“The biggest thing we talk about with our team is communicate,” Paul said. “James knows every night he’s not going to have 48 [points, as he did Thursday in Paul’s return at Phoenix] and stuff like that, but we just try to play the right way, make the right plays and move the ball. It’s fun playing like that because of the energy with our team.”
Returning against the league-worst Suns defense helped ease Paul’s transition, but it also was clear that he is not trying to merge onto the Rockets’ freeway from a standstill. He played with Harden throughout the offseason. He has been like a coach on the bench for four weeks. He swam, boxed and trained to be in shape, even when he was barred from the practice court.
Paul posted 11 points and 10 assists in 21 minutes in his return game Thursday night, impressing the most when he led a second unit that often had been a Houston downfall last season when Harden rested.
“You forget how good the guy is,” D’Antoni said.
Paul sucked the defense into the lane and hit trailing players. He whipped overhead passes off the pick-and-pop. He ended the first half with a three-pointer and opened the second with a spinning move to set up a cross-court pass for a Ryan Anderson three-pointer.
“He’s been part of every game,” Anderson said. “It’s not like he hasn’t been around or something. He’s well-acclimated.”
And Harden still dominated.
The NBA’s leading scorer lit up the Suns for 48 points while adding seven assists, a line not even as impressive as his 56-point, 13-assist game against a much better Utah defense two weeks ago.
“I’m going to continue to push him no matter how much he scores to continue to be a complete player,” Paul said. “I’ve never seen somebody score so effortlessly.”
There are far better opposing defenses and hiccups ahead, but this superstar pairing at least closes ground on Golden State as a team (even passing the Warriors in the standings) and rivals Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the NBA’s best backcourt.
As Paul wore his allegiance on his chest with a Rockets knit sweater Thursday, the Houston staff and players spoke of a buy-in to the coach’s theories and a willingness to accept roles that the Warriors long established.
D’Antoni never even had that team-wide with his “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns.
“It doesn’t change anything; it just adds a whole lot,” Houston forward P.J. Tucker said of Paul’s return. “More than anything, what people don’t talk about is his mind-set. Chris is a pit bull. His mind-set on defense and the way he runs a team, he’s a true point guard. He gets it. He’s a great player, but just that attitude will be good to have back.”
Neither Paul nor Harden needs to give up the ball, leadership or shots. They just have to share them and complement one another. Paul gives Houston a mid-range option it lacked. He brings a vastly different leadership style, being bold and vocal while Harden can have the classic lead-by-example quietness.
“There shouldn’t be that much of an adjustment,” D’Antoni said. “When [Harden] has the ball, he’ll make the plays. When Chris has it, he’ll make it. I think they’ll share a little bit more and it should ease a lot of the fatigue [Harden] has because he has to make every play.”
It is a rare pairing, joining two players who were so ball-dominant in their careers. Last season, Harden led the NBA in ball possession time. Paul was seventh. Harden had the NBA’s second-highest percentage of teammate field goals assisted. Paul was fourth.
Paul, who was sidelined by a bruised left knee, restarted his season Thursday with a 20-minute restriction that should be lifted in about a week. Going without another injured playmaking wing, Luc Mbah a Moute, the Rockets’ offense still made Harden wonder if the Suns’ scoreboard had gone haywire after Houston’s 90-point first half.
“That’s how we’ve been all year — that happiness of wanting to compete for each other,” Harden said. “Obviously, he [Paul] brings that extra excitement. Once he gets back healthy and Luc comes back and we get our full roster, we can kind of ride it out and see how really good we can be.”