NBA Teams
Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer 420d

Rockets off to a hot start building their brand new defensive identity

NBA, Houston Rockets

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It wasn't too difficult for the Golden State Warriors to find the silver lining after blowing a 17-point lead on a night that started with them getting gaudy gold championship rings packed with 11 carats worth of diamonds.

So what if Kevin Durant's potential game-winning baseline jumper didn't leave his hands until split seconds after the final buzzer sounded? As coach Steve Kerr cracked in the locker room, the Warriors played a heck of a lot better than they did in last season's opener, when the San Antonio Spurs blew them out by 29 points, providing all sorts of overreaction ammunition.

"Only one [point] this year," Warriors star Stephen Curry said, keeping a straight face, after the Houston Rockets rallied for a 122-121 victory Tuesday at Oracle Arena. "So that's improvement."

On a serious note, Curry added, "I don't want to overreact to one game. I like our chances as we go forward to figure it out."

Who doesn't like the Warriors' chances? Las Vegas oddsmakers considered Golden State the biggest preseason favorite ever of any team in one of the four major professional sports. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey refers to the Warriors as "maybe the best team in NBA history."

But the Rockets, with a roster that Morey remodeled this summer, believe they can emerge as legitimate challengers to the Warriors.

"We've got a chance, man," Rockets superstar James Harden said. "We've got a chance."

Houston didn't necessarily prove that point Tuesday night by defeating a Warriors team that had plenty of potential excuses (the absence of sixth man Andre Iguodala, the knee injury that sidelined Draymond Green in the fourth quarter, fatigue from the preseason China trip, an emotional letdown after the ring ceremony, etc.). It's fair to wonder how much the fluke factor was in play after the Warriors snapped a 28-game winning streak in games in which they led by at least 15.

The Rockets are well aware that rings are awarded, not earned, in October. But the way the Rockets won -- as much as who they beat -- reinforced their optimism that they'll at least have a puncher's chance (no pun intended, Chicago Bulls fans) to pull off an upset over the Warriors in a playoff series.

"This game will mean absolutely nothing for them come April," said Chris Paul, who struggled as a scorer with only four points on 2-of-9 shooting but contributed eight rebounds, 11 assists and two steals despite occasionally dragging his left leg. "But for us, we talk about every game that we go into, it's about us and building our habits."

It's a pretty safe bet that the Rockets will feature a historically elite offense again, a requirement to have a prayer against the Warriors' ridiculous arsenal of shooters. Harden and new co-star Paul have some kinks to work out -- a process that might be delayed by CP3's left knee, which was sore enough for him to sit during crunch time -- but a Mike D'Antoni-coached team featuring two future Hall of Fame point guards will put up plenty of 120-plus-point nights.

The question, as it always is with D'Antoni's offensive juggernauts, is whether the Rockets can get the stops necessary to beat the league's best teams. Holding the Warriors to 20 points in the fourth quarter, when Houston fought back from a 13-point deficit, is a pretty strong opening statement.

"That's our identity," Harden said. "Obviously, we can score with the best of them offensively, but defensively to get where we want to go, we've got to get stops."

Want to scoff at Harden discussing defense? Go ahead if you wish. Put your head down and smack your forehead like former Rockets coach Kevin McHale did on an NBA TV set while imitating teammates' reaction to Harden broaching the topic in the locker room.

But dismissing the Rockets' potential to be a good defensive team -- their goal is to be among the top 10 in efficiency -- might not be so wise. The offseason additions of PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, along with the return of Trevor Ariza, armed the Rockets with three active, rugged, versatile defensive stoppers who can switch anything.

The fact that Tucker and Mbah a Moute combined for 34 points on 18 shots off the Rockets' bench, complementing reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon's 24-point performance, was a massive bonus in the opener.

"They were the big difference in this win because they can just match up in so many different ways and guard them in ways that they're not used to," Rockets power forward Ryan Anderson said. "We're very deep. We have veteran guys who know how to play the game and understand. It's fun basketball when you play hard and together like that."

D'Antoni, while warning on the eve of the season against reaching grand conclusions based on one game, mentioned that Houston will be a much different team in May than mid-October.

"If not, we're in trouble," D'Antoni said, recognizing that a team that made major roster changes will have to work out some kinks during the regular season.

"I think a lot of stuff will take some time," Paul said, "but you want to figure it out and win at the same time."

The Rockets were outscored by 13 points in the 21 minutes that Paul and Harden played together, so they clearly have plenty to figure out, starting with how to get Paul completely healthy. But they still managed to beat the mighty Warriors.

"They're the measuring stick of the league right now," Ariza said. "For us to come out here tonight and get a win and us not play our best, it says a lot about our team."

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