HOUSTON — Despite positive results from their first victory without guard Chris Paul, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey acted with haste in patching the hole on his roster that could undermine advancement toward securing a playoff bid in the competitive Western Conference.
The Rockets on Monday announced the signing of free agent guard Austin Rivers, recently released by the Phoenix Suns following a trade that sent Rivers westward from Washington. Rivers, in his seventh season, has averaged 9.3 points and 2.4 assists over 437 career games with New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Wizards. Rivers posted career-best marks in points (15.1), assists (4.0), rebounds (2.4), and steals (1.2) last season with the Clippers.
With Paul expected to be sidelined between 2-4 weeks with a Grade-2 left hamstring strain, the Rockets opted not to roll the dice by increasing the workload on guards James Harden and Eric Gordon. Guard Brandon Knight recently returned from a knee injury that cost him almost two full seasons, but in averaging 14.9 minutes over the previous two games, it became clear that Knight isn’t ready for such heavy minutes. That led Morey and the Rockets to Rivers.
“He can give us stuff, especially with Chris out, another ball handler, scorer,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A guy that attacks, can play defense — he’s a good NBA player. It makes us deeper and it keeps us from having Eric to play too many minutes and different guys. Another good body. A lot of positive stuff.”
Rivers will play on Tuesday when the Rockets (17-15) host the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-11) at Toyota Center. Houston has produced the fourth-best offensive rating (112.1) in the league this month and improved to 7-4 in December with a 108-101 home victory over the San Antonio Spurs last Saturday, their first victory in six games this season with Paul sidelined.
Rivers and Paul were teammates for three seasons in Los Angeles, and rumors abounded about their supposedly frosty relationship. They were central in an altercation, highlighted by talk of secret tunnels, between the Rockets and Clippers last season.
Rivers was quick to dismiss those allegations prior to his first practice with the Rockets on Monday.
“I had no problems with Chris,” Rivers said. “Obviously if I had a problem with Chris I wouldn’t be here. Chris has a huge input on this team as he should; he’s a Hall of Fame point guard. Obviously, if that was that serious I wouldn’t be here. That just goes to show you that it’s not real.
“That’ll be quickly put to bed.”
“For better or worse, right?” Rivers said of his history against the Rockets. “If we ever play in L.A., me and CP (Chris Paul) know all the tunnels. We’ll be all right there. It’s funny. This is a team I always admired and wanted to play for with (Mike) D’Antoni and the way they play, getting up and down. It’s a very fitting place.”
Stability and success have been companions for the Thunder, winners of 9 of 13 with two of those four losses coming by just two points. In the second game of a back-to-back, the Thunder fell 114-112 to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Sunday. Still, third-seeded Oklahoma City possesses the best point differential (6.4) and net rating (6.1) of all teams in the West.
Those margins have been built but the league’s second-best defense (102.0 rating) and by prowess on the glass. Oklahoma City ranks fourth in rebounding percentage (52.0) and, especially concerning for the Rockets, first overall in offensive rebounding rate (31.4). Houston is 29th in defensive rebounding percentage (69.4) this season, ahead of only the Wizards.
“That’s the game,” Harden said. “Obviously, we know how really good they are defensively but rebounding (will be decisive).”