Chris Paul works in Houston.
The Rockets won the first 15 games that Paul played for them.
Houston is 13-0 when it starts an ideal five of Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela.
Any concern about how Paul and Harden would mesh offensively is dead, given the offensive life that the Rockets show in averaging 120 points a game when the All-Star duo plays.
As Paul prepares to play the Clippers on Monday night at Staples Center for the first time since leaving for Houston in an offseason trade, the Rockets’ vantage point is more long range than the short-term success of the Paul project.
Houston has never relented from chasing Golden State ever since losing to the Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference finals. Now with Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s uber-offense and a score of defensively talented roster additions, Houston is more equipped to return to the conference finals and be a challenger for more.
Harden is a most-valuable-player factor but Paul is the two-way threat that drives the vision.
“We’re just holding it down until we get the whole crew back,” Paul said after the Rockets won Friday night at Phoenix with eight healthy players available. “Ain’t nobody going to feel sorry for us and we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We’re going to keep going out and competing.”
The Rockets will not get Harden back from a left hamstring strain for Monday’s game against the Clippers. When he is reexamined in Houston this week, it could clear the way for him to return for a pair of telling home games against surging Minnesota on Thursday and conference-leading Golden State on Saturday.
At 30-11, the Rockets actually did not match last season’s midpoint record of 31-11. But the offseason makeover had more to do with what happened after that, as the Rockets went from a 31-9 start to a 24-18 finish.
Harden was overburdened with offensive responsibility. That no longer exists with Paul to be the playmaker or the spot-up shooter alongside him.
“With Chris Paul out there orchestrating things, we’re going to score,” D’Antoni said.
With Harden out, Paul has averaged 28.7 points, 8.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds during the three-game winning streak that Houston brings to Los Angeles. Health concerns will remain for Paul, who was sidelined 21 games last season for the Clippers and has sat out 17 so far this season. But his grounded, pass-first style also suggests that he could have the longevity of point guards who played a similar game, such as Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and John Stockton.
Paul’s three-point shooting (38% is above his career clip) and free-throw shooting (career-high 92%) can make the 32-year-old’s impact last, but he also thrives as a playmaker on a team with more offensive court spacing than he ever has enjoyed in his career.
On a Friday night when the Rockets’ three-pointers weren’t falling, Paul’s midrange game was key to beating Phoenix without Harden, Luc Mbah a Moute, Nene and other injured players. Paul still can be a one-man fastbreak, as displayed when he dribbled ahead of teammates and swerved into a gap of set Suns defenders for an open 14-footer.
“Coach sort of said these can be sort of the dog days of the NBA, where teams just have letdowns and you lose games that you probably should have won,” Paul said. “We were out there, after they called out the starting lineups, eight deep. Eight of us dressed tonight. We just said, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got. Let’s make this happen.’ It was fun to win that game.”
Paul is also part of a defensive improvement that makes the Rockets a more legitimate postseason threat. For all of D’Antoni’s groundbreaking genius on offense in Phoenix, those successful Suns teams never added as much defense to the mix as the Rockets have with Paul, Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker and Ariza.
The internal improvement of Capela is as important to Houston’s defensive bump and the entire mix. The Rockets are 15-0 when Capela, Harden and Paul play together, largely because Capela has leaped into being a two-way threat and potential All-Star over the last two years.
The precision of Paul’s passing makes Capela as efficient offensively as DeAndre Jordan was with Paul in Los Angeles. Capela, 23, edges Jordan for the NBA lead in field-goal percentage at 66.8 while putting up career-high averages for points (14.3), rebounds (11.2) and blocked shots (1.8).
Capela is more than just a threat to roll and dunk when he is picking up 3.3 offensive rebounds a game.
“I try to always have a presence on the offensive boards,” Capela said. “Sometimes, on the offense, I’m just in the short corner, just waiting. So I’m just trying to hustle, give us an extra possession and it’s good for us. It’s good for everybody. Extra possessions which finish with open threes is good for us.”
Rebounding only feeds the metric monster in a season that has Houston taking more three-point shots than two-point shots. The Rockets are second in the NBA for defensive rebounding percentage, swinging them quickly into a transition game that keeps scrambling defenses from denying the three-point arc.
Houston averages 43.6 three-point attempts a game, which is nearly 14 more than Golden State tries per game and more than twice as many as New York puts up.
That is how the Rockets prefer to play. But with Paul, they feel like that is not how they must play to win.