James Harden enjoyed an incredible campaign as the Houston Rockets produced a strong regular season, but their quest to reach the NBA Finals fell short once again.
Kevin McHale paid the price for a step back in the 2015-16 term as the club barely reached the playoffs and were then consequently dumped out in the first round by the Golden State Warriors.
The Rockets hired former Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni to replace McHale and the club enjoyed great success under the first year of his tenure, resulting in the 66-year-old winning Coach of Year for the second time in his career.
Due to their underwhelming 2015-16 season, the Rockets were active in free agency adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, although Dwight Howard left the team to join the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite producing over 50 wins over the course of the term, Houston could still not beat out the San Antonio Spurs at the top of the Southwest Division.
Harden put forward his credentials for MVP, breaking a number of franchise records in the process. Only Russell Westbrook averaged a better points per game ratio, although he was the NBA leader when it came to assists per contest.
The Rockets secured the third seed in the Western Conference and were able to ease past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
However, the Spurs loomed large in the Conference Semi-Finals, and although Houston put forward two impressive performances, their season was ended by Gregg Popovich’s side.
Their response has been to trade for nine-time All-Star Chris Paul thus far in the off-season, making a huge statement of intent to challenge the Spurs and the Warriors at the top.
Finding Early Rhythm
Credit: USA Today
The Rockets’ season began with a defeat on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers, despite a 34-pointer from Harden. However, they got off the mark with a win against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center before beating the Mavs on home soil two days later.
D’Antoni’s men squared off against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the beginning of November and were defeated, despite another fine outing from Harden. The response to the setback was emphatic, claiming impressive road victories over the Washington Wizards and the Spurs.
San Antonio returned the favour in their next contest, but the Rockets would end November by winning six of their next nine matches, including a run of three successive triumphs.
December began on the highest of notes, overcoming the Warriors in a thrilling double-overtime contest. Harden scored 29 points on his way to a triple-double to defeat the reigning Western Conference champions on the road.
The victory kick-started a run of 10 wins on the bounce, defeating the Boston Celtics, the Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime. Harden was operating at the peak of his powers, while Clint Capela along with Gordon and Anderson were also making contributions.
The Spurs brought an end to the success with a narrow win at Toyota Center, but Houston ended 2016 on a high note with another run of four wins. Harden made NBA history on New Year’s Eve in a win over the Knicks, becoming the first player to record a 50–15–15 game.
On Course For The Playoffs
January began exceptionally well for Houston as they won their opening five games of the year. Harden notched two more triple-doubles in victories on the road against the Toronto Raptors and the Charlotte Hornets.
However, from that point onwards their momentum was stymied by defeats to quality outfits. The Warriors, Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks all got the better of D’Antoni’s men, although Harden continued to excel with his second 50-point triple-double of the campaign against the 76ers.
Four wins on the bounce in February sent the Rockets into the All-Star break well placed with a 40-18 record. Houston came out of the rest period firing with back-to-back victories, but a defeat to the Indiana Pacers ended the month on a low note.
March highlighted the club’s inconsistent form against the stronger outfits in the NBA. Harden led his team to triumphs over the Cavaliers and the Memphis Grizzlies, while Lou Williams inspired a victory against the Thunder. However, losses to the Spurs and the Warriors foreshadowed the end of the campaign, despite breaking the 50-win barrier.
D’Antoni’s men ended the regular season with a 4-2 record in the final month, dispatching the Timberwolves in the final game to enter the playoffs with momentum.
Bitter Taste Of Defeat
The clash of the two MVP candidates occurred in the first round as Harden faced off against Westbrook, who somehow managed to enjoy a better statistical season. However, in the opener at Toyota Center, Harden led his side to a dominant 31-point victory.
He was in fine form in game two, notching 35 points to steer his team into a 2-0 series lead. The guard was even better on the road, although not even his 44-point outing was enough to all but secure the Rockets’ place in the next round as Westbrook led a revival.
Nene took the reins in game four to get D’Antoni’s men back to winning ways, notching 28 points in a closely-fought contest. Harden drove his team over the line on home soil, putting them on a collision course with the Spurs.
Trevor Ariza got the Rockets off to the perfect start in the Conference Semi-Finals to deliver a crushing win on the road. However, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge led a comeback in game two and three to hand Popovich’s men a series lead.
Harden levelled the series in game four, but the Rockets would lose out in the defining moment when the Spurs snatched game five in overtime, despite losing Leonard to injury. Houston were completely stunned by the loss and were awful in the final game, ending their season in a 39-point defeat.
Paul Bolsters Star Power
The Rockets traded seven players, including key defensive cog Patrick Beverley, to acquire Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. They also sent their first-round pick in the 2018 Draft to Doc Rivers’ men, but he has the talent to get them over the line.
The challenge of dethroning the Warriors at the top of the Western Conference and the NBA will be extremely difficult even with the presence of the nine-time All-Star. However, if he can build a dominant rapport with Harden and ease the pressure on the guard then there is no reason why they could not mount a decent charge at the very least.
Houston have taken care of business by locking up Harden to most-lucrative deal in NBA history, handing their star man $228m over the next six years. D’Antoni’s men could not afford to lose their key player, much like the Thunder lost Kevin Durant to the Warriors, and therefore the price of the deal was a necessity.
As a result of those deals, there is great pressure on the Rockets to make a charge for the crown next season. With Harden, Paul, Ariza, Anderson and Capela as their starters and Eric Gordon continuing to operate as the sixth man – there is quality there to mount the challenge.
Backing the Rockets at 6/17.00+6006.006.00-0.17 with William Hill is a good bet to take to win the Western Conference, while Harden’s MVP odds with SunBets of 7/18.00+7007.007.00-0.14 are also intriguing.
Eric has been a sports journalist for over 20 years and has travelled the world covering top sporting events for a number of publications. He also has a passion for betting and uses his in-depth knowledge of the sports world to pinpoint outstanding odds and value betting opportunities.
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