LOS ANGELES — The routs have become ridiculously routine for the Houston Rockets.
Houston went 12-1 in November with an average point differential of 16.8 points per game, one of the 10 most statistically dominant months in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Rockets have rolled by an average of 21.6 points during their streak of seven straight wins by a double-digit margin, which started with Chris Paul‘s return from a knee injury and continued with Sunday’s 118-95 road win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
So what exactly are the challenges for a team with the West’s best record that is winning so easily?
“Just not get too relaxed,” James Harden said after a 36-point, nine-assist performance that qualifies as ho-hum for him these days. “Know what the bigger picture is. Just keep attacking. Have energy every game, because every game isn’t going to be perfect. We want to win every game, but it’s not going to happen. We just need to find ways to grind days out.”
The bigger picture, of course, means winning a championship, which is quite a challenge considering the Golden State Warriors‘ historic collection of talent. Nobody will remember November and December if the Rockets experience misery in May.
That’s why Paul has been preaching about “the process” since his summer arrival in Houston. Paul isn’t just referring to figuring out how the pair of All-Star guards used to having the ball in their hands can best complement each other, which continues to be a work in progress. The Rockets have been really good — a net rating of plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions — with Harden and Paul on the floor together during the winning streak but much better when one sits.
More than anything, Paul stresses the need for consistent improvement throughout the course of the season, knowing the Rockets need to peak in the playoffs.
Paul is all too aware of how tough it is to compete for a title, with his failure to advance past the second round of the playoffs an ugly blemish on his Hall of Fame resume. He certainly isn’t too impressed with the Rockets’ success during a soft stretch of the schedule, much less their performance Sunday.
“It sounds crazy, but I don’t think we played well, up to our standards,” said Paul, who had 21 points and six assists against the Lakers but also committed a season-high five turnovers. “As far as the turnovers and our defense giving up the offensive rebounds, we’re capable of a lot more. Going into every game, it’s about us. We’ve just got to continue to get better.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni saw certain Rockets who seemed “a little low on the energy scale” against the Lakers. It would certainly be understandable if a sense of satisfaction creeps in as the Rockets rack up blowout wins, but it’s not acceptable.
“We police ourselves with that,” said Trevor Ariza, the starting five’s glue guy. “When you’re slacking, we let you know.”
Those conversations happen constantly. A lapse of effort by a Rocket gets addressed in real time, not during the next day’s film session. Garbage time is no exception, as the Rockets don’t want to see their defensive rating dip after reaching top-five status.
“If you could hear these timeouts …” rugged role player PJ Tucker said, laughing and shaking his head while thinking about some of the in-game call-outs on the Rockets’ bench. “We’re a veteran group. Hey, listen, everybody check their egos at the door. Let’s be able to talk to each other and figure it out, because that’s the only way we’re going to win. From top to bottom.
“That’s all we talk about, man: Pushing each other. It’s the only way we can keep it going, pushing each other every single night. That’s the key to our success throughout the whole season, testing each other and pushing each other.”
None of the Rockets’ recent opponents have been able to push them.