NBA — James Harden, Chris Paul push Rockets to 16th straight win

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Chris Paul moved the ball side to side, rocking Patrick Patterson back just enough to take his patented side-hop to the right and lean back to unleash a spinning 3-pointer with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter to put the Rockets up 17 points. It was an early dagger in a game that really lacked any emphatic hammer, as the Houston Rockets methodically finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder 122-112 for a 16th consecutive win on Tuesday night.

What makes the Rockets special was on full display though, with a balanced attack and underrated defense keeping the Thunder at arms’ length for essentially the entire second half. Paul led the way with 25 points, hitting 5-of-6 from 3-point territory, and James Harden added 23 points and 11 assists. In all, seven Rockets scored in double figures.

The Thunder were energized out of the break, trimming the Rockets’ 11-point halftime lead down to three midway through the third quarter with some fancy offense, such as Paul George‘s give-and-go, behind-the-back pass to Steven Adams for a layup. But as the Rockets do, the offense came easy on their end, with an 8-0 jolt — featuring two 3s and an alley-oop to Clint Capela — pushing the Thunder back to an 11-point deficit.

The run extended to 13-1, but there was another mini-burst late in the third by OKC, with Westbrook generating a two-for-one while getting the deficit to 10 — except Gerald Green drilled a 3-pointer with a few seconds left to push the lead back to 13 heading to the fourth. It was that kind of game; any sign from OKC of making it close was answered with a simple, effective spread offense from the Rockets.

In a cruel plot twist, it went the other way for OKC down the stretch. The Thunder finally started getting stops in the final four minutes, but crushing turnovers by Russell Westbrook, and wide-open misses by George and Carmelo Anthony ended any comeback hopes. With a minute left, George had a wide-open wing 3 in transition that could have cut the lead to six, but it misfired long, capping his miserable shooting night (2-of-8 on 3s).

There’s a clear confidence emanating from the Rockets — they’ve won 16 straight, you know — but it goes deeper than the win streak. This is a team that knows it is truly elite, built to win at the highest level, and took any idea that the Thunder were threatening and snuffed it out at every chance.

Paul and Harden were ruthless as they mechanically took turns carving the Thunder, whether it was in isolation or by breaking down their shell and forcing scrambled rotations. There are so many weapons to consider, and unless you can score with them, you’re in trouble. Nothing summarizes the separation better than this: The Thunder set an OKC franchise record a few weeks ago with 17 made 3-pointers against the Grizzlies; the Rockets hit 17 against OKC on Tuesday, the 26th time this season they’ve hit that mark.

But what’s often lost focusing on the firepower of Houston is that this is an impressive defensive team. Its length and activity frustrated the Thunder, forcing nine Westbrook turnovers and disrupting any screen-and-roll pocket-passing they were trying to get. The Rockets threw different bodies at Westbrook — starting with Harden, surprisingly — interchanging between length and quickness. In the first meeting back on Christmas, Harden only guarded Westbrook for three possessions, with Eric Gordon taking him 45 and Trevor Ariza for 14. On Tuesday, Mike D’Antoni started with Harden on Westbrook, and shuffled through his options as the game went on.

It’s been a while since the Thunder’s big three entirely clicked together for a game, which is — shocker — when they’re at their best. Anthony had an excellent first half, scoring 19 of his 22 before the break, while Westbrook was solid with 32 points and 7 assists, but George, saddled by the responsibility of guarding Harden, scored just 17 on 7-of-16 shooting. Among the many things lost with Andre Roberson‘s injury, that’s a big one. Roberson guards Harden maybe better than anyone in the league, which also affords George the ability to defend someone else and save a little more for the offensive end. (In the first meeting, Roberson guarded Harden 41 out of 61 times.)

The Thunder have lived and breathed off their record against the best teams in the NBA (4-1 against the Raptors, Warriors and Rockets, before Tuesday’s game), citing that at every opportunity when doubt has crept in about whether this was going to work. But that only works if you keep beating those teams, and the Rockets were pretty clearly on a different level Tuesday. The game on Christmas was a feather in the Thunder’s cap, though that was with Roberson and the Rockets missing Paul. With it flipped, things looked quite a bit different.

As it stands now, the teams appear to be playing for different things, with the Rockets reaching for something higher as the Thunder have to recalibrate their attention on simply making the postseason in the bonkers Western Conference. It’s an unexpected place for this matchup to be, with so much transpiring since they met in the opening round of the playoffs last season. Both made star-studded, league-rattling moves, but the trajectories are quite different.



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