Chris Paul-James Harden backcourt shows dynamic potential in preseason debut

It took a grand total of one preseason game for Chris Paul to grasp his new team’s philosophy, as told by the Houston Chronicle

“If the shot’s there, shoot it,” he said after Tuesday’s preseason debut with the Houston Rockets in their 104-97 triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

Led by MVP runner-up James Harden, the Rockets were already one of the NBA’s most potent offensive teams, trailing only the mighty Golden State Warriors in offensive efficiency last season at 111.8 points per 100 possessions. Then they added a second future Hall of Famer in Paul, their entry in what was less an offseason than a full-blown arms race as teams throughout NBA loaded up in the hopes of somehow toppling the defending champions. 

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What are the first impressions of the new-look Thunder and Rockets?

The move pairs two of the most ball-dominant players in the league, with Harden tying Russell Westbrook for first in time of possession at 8.9 minutes per game and Paul (7.2) finishing seventh with his former team, the Clippers. It also gives the Rockets another elite playmaker, along with Harden, to help create for a lineup that drilled an NBA-record 1,181 3-pointers last season. 

As Tuesday proved, the Rockets will not alter their playbook in order to accommodate Paul. Indeed, there might not be much of a playbook to begin with as Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who says he doesn’t want to call anything structured beyond late-clock and out-of-bounds situations, is urging his team to play even faster than they did last season, when the Rockets ranked third with nearly 103 possessions per game.

“We showed them a stat,” D’Antoni recently told the Houston Chronicle. “In the first six seconds (of the shot clock), we score 1.64 points per possession. Second six seconds, we’re about 1.4. That’s early offense. That’s busting it up the floor. We want to live there. If we live in these two, we’ll be the best offense ever. We’ll offensively blow away teams. That’s why I want to push the pace.”

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James Harden connects with center Clint Capela on the alley-oop.

This promises to be a huge adjustment for Paul, a creature of the halfcourt whose teams have never finished higher than seventh in pace in his 12 NBA seasons. And whether or not D’Antoni’s frenetic, freelance style can avoid previous playoff failures remain to be seen. (His career postseason record stands at 32-38, with no Finals appearances.) 

But for at least one warmup contest against an under-strength Thunder team playing without Russell Westbrook, D’Antoni’s theory proved correct: The Rockets did indeed blow Oklahoma City away, drilling 20 3-pointers in the first three quarters and 24 overall to overshadow the first Thunder outings for Carmelo Anthony (19 points in 19 minutes) and Paul George (15 in 26). 

Harden and Paul shot poorly, going a combined 7 for 21. But their fingerprints were all over the Rockets’ victory with a hand in 75 of their 90 points via score or assist before leaving for good at the end of the third quarter. In a possible preview of things to come, both had stretches where they assisted on four 3s in little more than two minutes, precisely the type of haymakers D’Antoni wants the Rockets deliver. 

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Chris Paul dishes seven assists in his preseason debut with the Rockets.

The Rockets hope their new superstar backcourt doesn’t mechanically alternate possessions but rather seamlessly meshes, with playmaking opportunities arising organically instead of by force. This, D’Antoni says, can happen only through experience. 

They got their first tiny dose on Tuesday against Oklahoma City, and the early returns were promising. It took just 24 seconds for Harden and Paul to make their mark, with the latter feeding the former for the first salvo in Houston’s long-range blitz. They proceeded to rack up 17 assists between them, and it was all D’Antoni could to do keep himself from rubbing his hands with maniacal glee on the sideline.

It is, after all, still just the preseason.

“You can see the blueprint,” he said

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