CHARLOTTE, USA – OCTOBER 27: Dwayne Bacon of Charlotte Hornets tries to stop James Harden of Houston Rocket during the NBA match between Houston Rockets vs Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum arena in Charlotte, NC, United States on October 27, 2017 (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“Well, me and the boys here, we got some work to do. You wanna come along? It ain’t like it used to be, but, uh, it’ll do” The Wild Bunch (1969)

The final line from Sam Peckinpah’s epic Western film, The Wild Bunch, resonates now more than ever for the Houston Rockets. A lot was forecast on the Houston Rockets at the start of the season. The team and their fans had high expectations. They still do, despite a wild ride over the first 53 games of the campaign. Houston’s coming off a season where the squad set a franchise-record 65 wins in the regular season. The Rockets got to within one game of beating the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors. The closest there is to an unbeatable team in sports at the moment. Nevertheless, they did come up short and made some questionable offseason moves.

The Rockets parted ways with a key part of their chemistry, Trevor Ariza. Ariza played an integral part in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system on both ends of the floor. Houston’s been searching to fill that wing-spot all season long. Houston decided to try the Carmelo Anthony Experiment, which didn’t work. Anthony just wasn’t a good fit in the Rockets’ offense.

The offseason moves GM Daryl Morey made included snagging undrafted rookie Gary Clark. The University of Cincinnati product has been extremely efficient in low minutes this season for Houston. Morey also signed swingman James Ennis III. “The Menace” is slowly starting to come around, after an injury-prone first half kept him on the sidelines. The injury bug has affected the entire Houston Rockets roster. Injuries haven’t only plagued Houston this season. They are starting to become an unfortunate trend for the franchise with each passing year.

The in-season moves Morey has made have saved the Rockets’ season, besides the sudden Jordan-esque play of James Harden, and kept them afloat in the crowded, merciless Western Conference.

Shaky Start

Houston started the season at home getting blown out by New Orleans. Opening Night was never close, and downright embarrassing. It was obvious the Rockets were suffering from what many predicted, a “hangover” from the previous season. A campaign in which Houston was a hamstring injury away from winning the NBA Championship. But was there something more going on? It would be evident after 25 games, which the Rockets started 11-14, the poor start was more than a just a “hangover.”

Chris Paul hurt his hamstring and missed a few games – only to re-injure the hamstring again a few games later. The same injury that kept the Rockets from winning it all has crept up early this season. And the future Hall-of-Fame point guard has slowly become the most injury-prone player on the roster, and one of the NBA’s most frequent sideline watchers.  Throw in a multitude of other injuries (Ennis, Eric Gordon, and most recently Clint Capela) and the Rockets have been a bit harder and earlier than usual by the injury bug this season.

The Unguardable Tour

Luckily for Houston, they have James Harden. The Beard got off to a slow start, but on December 13th, “The Unguardable Tour” began playing in arenas nationwide. Harden started a streak he’s still on now, a scoring tear the NBA hasn’t seen since the likes of Wilt Chamberlain. More importantly, the revolution in Harden’s mental and leadership aspects of his game have been astounding to witness. His play has been monumental in keeping the Rockets in the playoff hunt as a new player seems to hit the IR every other game for Houston. Don’t just look at the stats. The 30 points in 27 consecutive games is astonishing.  What’s even more amazing is the look in Harden’s eye. This year, for the first time in his career, the Beard desperately wants to win the NBA title.

There’s a different look in Harden’s eyes. The look of a man who has the burden of finally winning an elusive MVP-award, one that was arguably his 3 seasons in a row, off his back. Harden really wanted that award. To prove something to those who said he couldn’t progress from 6th Man to MVP. Another record, that, only the Beard holds. Harden said in a post-game press conference after a game on December 27th, when asked about his MVP-status “I receive a lot of hate, but it won’t stop me from going out there and killing every single night, and being that dog that I am.” The sheer nerve to use the rule changes to his advantage. Rules that happen to combine a critical aspect of Harden’s game (getting free throws and luring defenders). This combination has resulted in an unstoppable force in today’s NBA.  James Harden… that dog.

The Statement Dunk… That Ignited a Historic Streak

The Beard’s been killing defenders all season long. Harden’s onslaught started with his first basket on December 13th, a statement dunk over JaVale McGee. The jam was followed by a flex by Harden in the direction of LeBron James. Comparable to a passing of the torch, Harden implied to LeBron: “I’m the real King James now.” It was the sort of visceral emotion Harden hadn’t displayed in any of his prior seasons. The dunk began #13’s scoring spree, resulting in a 50-point triple-double and a Rockets victory.

The Beard has scored 30 or more 27 games in a row. He’s averaging over 40 points during his improbable scoring-tear. Harden has been playing like a man possessed, and Rockets fans and the team pray it continues throughout the playoffs. The Rockets went 11-1 during a 12-game stretch that ended in their huge victory over the Warriors without Chris Paul. Houston’s big-man, Clint Capela, was outplaying the opposition’s interior on a nightly basis while patrolling the glass, before suffering an injury.

Key In-Season Acquisitions

Other than the Beard’s record-breaking play, Daryl Morey made a few midseason acquisitions that have fit seamlessly into Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. Houston signed Austin Rivers the day before Christmas, and he has been a “lifesaver” for the team according to D’Antoni. Rivers’ play on both ends of the floor, his stellar defense and surprising shooting and effective isolation ability, have helped keep the Rockets’ backcourt immensely, especially when CP3 was sidelined.

“Shufflin’ D” as he’s known in some NBA circles, also managed to snag Kenneth Faried, aka “The Manimal.” The Manimal’s energy and effort were being wasted away at the end of the bench on a bad team. Faried has been a pleasant surprise for Houston. The Manimal has fit in tremendously and helped to fill part of the void left by Capela’s absence. Houston’s gritty hustler and energizer bunny is quickly developing chemistry with Harden and Paul. The newest Rocket is also becoming a fan favorite in Houston.

Peering Into the Future

Despite Houston’s questionable start, they’re 9-2 against the top 7 teams in the NBA, with 2 of those wins coming against Golden State. Houston has managed to really dial in more than ever this season when they face Golden State. When the light’s been the brightest, Houston hasn’t shied from the spotlight. If the Rockets can somehow manage to stay healthy for the playoffs, they will be the closest threat to dethroning the Warriors, and get back to their pre-season expectations.

Chris Paul recently returned after missing 17 games to injury. Houston’s a much different group since the last time Paul was on the court. The Point God will never be quicker and sturdier akin to his younger days. But, the Rockets still have a lot of work to do to accomplish their goal of winning a title. And this version of Chris Paul ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.

Main Image:
CHARLOTTE, USA – OCTOBER 27: Dwayne Bacon of Charlotte Hornets tries to stop James Harden of Houston Rocket during the NBA match between Houston Rockets vs Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum arena in Charlotte, NC, United States on October 27, 2017 (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


View the original article on Last Word On Pro Basketball: Houston Rockets Mid-Season Review