Houston are hard to beat

With Harden in form and defence in place, confident Rockets set course for title

HOUSTON • Make no mistake, the Houston Rockets have the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship firmly in their sights.

After routing visitors Utah Jazz 118-98 for a second straight game to lead 2-0 in their first-round play-off series on Wednesday, coach Mike D'Antoni declared his players were "as good as anybody, if not better than everybody".

His confidence is not misplaced.

Houston, after a slow start that culminated in a wretched 11-14 record in early December, have found form. Since the All-Star break, the Western Conference fourth seeds can boast of having both the NBA's best record (20-5) and net rating (outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions), according to ESPN.

And, with James Harden, the Most Valuable Player front runner along with Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the title charge, the Rockets have "more confidence" than last season, when they had a league-high 65 wins.

Centre Clint Capela, who had seven points but pulled down 10 rebounds and had three blocks, recalled how Chris Paul's hamstring injury hurt their chances in last year's Conference Finals against the two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors.

He said: "It's just the beginning, because last year we went so far.

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    Houston's James Harden scored his third post-season triple-double against Utah on Wednesday.

"It's just two wins in the play-offs. We know we have to get 16 and it gets harder every game."

But, in Harden, Houston have a premier reference point and whose MVP form has carried over into the post-season. He was the scoring leader in the regular season with an average of 36.1 points per game.

After his third career post-season triple-double - 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists - D'Antoni admitted he "did not know what else we could ask of him".

Houston's James Harden driving to the basket over Rudy Gobert of Utah Jazz as Clint Capela and Ricky Rubio look on during Game 2 of their National Basketball Association first-round play-off series at the Toyota Centre on Wednesday. The Rockets won 118-98 for a 2-0 lead.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He added: "Just (that) he gets tired every once in a while, so he is human. But the year that he's had, has been ridiculous.

"We can definitely be better. We haven't proven it yet."

But Harden downplayed his latest scoring exploits, insisting the Rockets are "where we want to be because of our defence".

The All-Star guard told ESPN: "We're almost there. Offence, I'm not worried about. We've been a great offensive team all year but, defensively, we're locked in.

"When we guard like that and we rebound the basketball and push the tempo in transition, it's pretty hard to beat us."

Forward P.J. Tucker, who contributed 16 points, agreed, saying: "When we do what we do, I don't think anybody can beat us.

"And that's a fact."

The Jazz did not rely upon the extreme shading technique on the left-handed Harden that was the talking point from Game 1, in an attempt to force him to use his right.

Still, when he beat his defender off the dribble, he did so going to his right.

With centre Rudy Gobert protecting the rim, Harden picked apart the defence instead and found open teammates off his penetration and ended up dishing out 10 assists as well.

The Jazz, who were paced by 17 points from guard Ricky Rubio, will now attempt to protect their home court in Salt Lake City ahead of Game 3 tomorrow.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2019, with the headline 'Houston are hard to beat'. Print Edition | Subscribe