MILWAUKEE — After collecting their 17th straight win with Wednesday night’s 110-99 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, James Harden said his Houston Rockets still aren’t the team to beat, but they’re in a comfortable place.
“Nah,” the Rockets superstar said when asked if the team one game ahead of the Golden State Warriors should be considered title favorites. “I feel like we’re just out there swaggin’ and hoopin’.”
Harden, the leading MVP candidate, is focused on his team’s ability to create more good habits as it tries to lock down the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and an extra home game against the defending champion Warriors in a potential conference finals showdown.
He set the early tone in Wednesday’s win by scoring 21 of his 26 points in the first half, while Rockets guard Chris Paul added a crucial 16 points and 11 rebounds for a team that was mostly subdued after winning yet another game.
“Because we’re just out there hoopin’,” Harden said, describing why his team isn’t overcome with emotion after extending the streak. “We’re not worried about wins and losses right now. We’re worried about playing the right way on both ends of the floor and that’s going to carry over into the postseason. More times than not, 90 percent of the time, if you play the right way on both ends of the floor great things will happen. The result? Get wins.”
Paul echoed those sentiments while trying to compare this team to the 2012-13 LA Clippers — a team that also enjoyed a 17-game winning streak.
“That was my first year out in L.A., it was a little bit of a younger team,” Paul said. “This is a veteran team. We don’t even talk about the streak, we hoop, we just keep trying to build game by game. You see us during the game, sometimes we get on each other and all that stuff like that, but we don’t get on the plane and not talk to each other, you know what I mean? We understand that it’s big picture and we’re just hoopin’.”
What’s evident in watching this group on the floor is just how much fun they are having together. They trust that their teammates will be there to back them up if there’s a mistake and they know there is still room to improve over the last month of the regular season.
“What stands out that every night somebody else different has stepped up,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A lot of those streaks are a lot of those teams show up without some players. You’re healthy, you’ve got a nice part of the schedule, but we have the hardest part of the schedule. A lot of guys have been out, like tonight Joe Johnson and Ryan Anderson, and yet we’re able to win and that’s been because of our depth and the guys that we have.”
Harden noted that each night during the streak the group’s “effort” and “communication” has been where it needs to be.
“It’s something special, man,” Harden said. “Especially when you know you got guys out there that have your back all the time and want to see you do well, want to see you succeed. You look over at the bench, our bench is cheering each other on, that makes you want to go out there and give that extra effort. Especially with the coaching staff we have and how well they’re coaching. We’re just so tied into each other that it makes you want to go out there and have fun. Obviously our pace, the way we shoot 3s and all that good stuff. The guys in the locker room, it makes you want to go out there and compete.”
The Rockets have a chance to extend the streak to 18 games on Friday night in a road showdown against the Toronto Raptors — the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the first team to clinch a playoff spot this season. As happy as D’Antoni is to lead this team, he admits the coach in him always wonders when the streak will finally come to an end.
“I think it every day,” he said. “That’s a coach’s life. I’m scared to death of Friday already.”