LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. This edition comes live from Staples Center, which is where we will start.
1) Houston is destroying everything in its path right now. Sunday that was the Lakers. The Houston Rockets are the best team in the NBA as you read this. They have won seven games in a row by an average of 21.6 points per game. They are not just beating teams, they are crushing them with good defense —best in the NBA the last seven, allowing less than a point per possession — and an offense that overwhelms.
“We’ve just got too many great offensive players and sooner or later we’ll get a big lead because they will hit three or four in a row,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said after the latest Rocket win, 116-95 over the Lakers.
The Rockets came out cold in Staples Center Sunday night, shooting 3-of-11 to open the game and 3-of-11 from three in the first quarter. Then Eric Gordon came in — he started going at the mismatches created by the Lakers switching defense and ended up with 20 first half points on 12 shots. The Laker guards could not stay in front of him. Soon James Harden followed suit and he had 20 first half points on 10 shots.
“Just try to get the best shot available, if there’s a mismatch try to exploit the mismatch,” Harden said. “Take the shot and get a really good shot.”
The Rockets got a lot of good shots on the way to a comfortable, if not always pretty, win. Harden finished the night with 36 points and nine assists. Chris Paul had 21 points, Eric Gordon 22 off the bench (he will be the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year if CP3 stays healthy and Gordon keeps coming off the bench, he started 13 games with Paul out).
While the starters with the Rockets are good, where they pulled away from the Lakers — and they do it to many teams — is when the bench comes in. D’Antoni staggers Paul and Harden so one of them is always on the court, and with defenses focused on those playmakers things are a little easier for Gordon to find space — he attacked mismatches and got to the rim all night against Los Angeles. Also in that second unit is P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, who bring some defensive heft to the rotation few teams can match.
This is a veteran Rockets’ team that says all the right things (Harden was asked about being the early leader to win MVP and he said his goal this season is a ring), and a veteran coach that doesn’t overwork the guys in practice but expects them to bring it come game time. That’s how they keep this streak going.
“Main thing I told them is we have to fight not having energy, there were a couple of guys tonight I thought were low on the energy scale. We have to fight that,” D’Antoni said. He added that they have to not let the little things — a referee’s call they don’t like, a few missed shots — drag them down and stay focused on the bigger picture.
The veteran Rockets are policing themselves on this front.
“If you’re slacking, we let you know,” Trevor Ariza said. “That’s how it is, when we see somebody is not giving the effort they normally give, I’ll yell ‘let’s go’ and it usually works, because everybody knows it’s coming from a good place.”
Everything with the Rockets is coming from a good place right now. I don’t know anyone sane ready to pick them over the Warriors in a seven game series in late May, however, right now the Warriors are coasting through the season and the Rockets are playing harder to forge their identity. Right now, the Rockets are the best team in the NBA.
2) Thunder beat the Spurs. Sure, no Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge or Tony Parker, but OKC will take it. Russell Westbrook had a triple-double and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat a top five team in San Antonio. This is just what they expected before the season, right?
Not exactly. This was a very shorthanded Spurs team — Kawhi Leonard is still rehabbing, and Gregg Popovich rested LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker. The Thunder didn’t score in the final 3:34. (The Spurs didn’t score in the final 1:59 — this wasn’t the prettiest game ever.) Carmelo Anthony had nine points on 10 shots, and Paul George was 2-of-17 from the floor. OKC as a team were missing open looks all night long.
Doesn’t matter, OKC will take the win and not look a gift horse in the mouth.
Russell Westbrook had 22 points,10 rebounds, and 10 assists for his seventh triple-double of the season.
The Thunder needed that and the win, they will take it however it comes.
3) Jimmy Butler takes over late, scores 20 in the fourth quarter to secure Timberwolves win. Once again Minnesota played down to the level of its competition. Once again Minnesota’s defense was unimpressive (they are 23rd in the league and not improving).
But more and more this is becoming Jimmy Butler’s team and when they needed him he took over in the fourth quarter Sunday, scoring 20 points in the final 7:08 to get the Timberwolves the win. Butler was doing it with hustle plays and attacking the rim. It worked.