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For the Rockets to Fulfill Their Potential, Chris Paul Has to Learn to Let Loose

Houston may have pulled off the upset, but not because of its star offseason acquisition. Old habits die hard, and Mike D’Antoni has a challenge cut out for him: How do you make a natural point guard a shooting guard? Plus, four other lessons from Rockets-Warriors.

Chris Paul dribbles the ball against the Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Rockets didn’t need Chris Paul to beat the Warriors on opening night.

Houston’s marquee addition never found a rhythm in his first game with his new team. Paul finished with only four points on an uncharacteristically inefficient 2-of-9 shooting, and the team’s comeback in the final minutes of Tuesday’s game, to win 122-121, came with him on the bench. He reportedly had a nagging knee injury, but he would have had issues adjusting to how the Rockets play regardless. For the first time in Paul’s NBA career, his team is not built around him. Houston can win even when he’s off his game.

Paul is a micromanager in a system where everyone has the freedom to make their own decisions. There’s no such thing as a red light when you play for Mike D’Antoni. The only rule is shoot if you are open. The Rockets played at the third-fastest pace in the NBA last season. The Clippers, in contrast, played at the 17th. Lob City only seemed like a high-flying offense. They ran selectively. If Paul didn’t like what they were getting in transition, he would pull the ball out and call a play. He held the ball for most of the game and directed everyone else on the court. James Harden and Eric Gordon don’t need directions. In their second season with D’Antoni, they know exactly what they are supposed to do.

There was no question about the pecking order Tuesday. Harden was the same guy he was last season. Everyone else in Houston had to fit around him. Harden finished with 27 points and 10 assists on 10-of-23 shooting, and he regularly hijacked the offense to isolate when he thought he had the advantage against his defender. Gordon was much better than Paul as a secondary option because he had a clearer understanding of his role. There was no deliberation from the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. As soon as Gordon got the ball, he put his head down and attacked the rim. His 3-point shot didn’t fall like it did last season, as he went 0-of-6 from deep, but those were basically the only shots he missed. He finished with 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, and he could be in line for a big season. With Lou Williams gone, he has much less competition for shots on Houston’s second unit.

Paul found ways to be effective without scoring. He had 11 assists and only one turnover, and he chipped in eight rebounds, two steals, and one block. Paul played in much more space than he did in Los Angeles. The Clippers never had a stretch big man like Ryan Anderson, and they rarely played lineups with five perimeter players. Paul has to change his mind-set to take advantage of these opportunities. He has to give up control and trust that the ball will come back to him. Houston had one of the greatest offenses of all time without him. They don’t need Paul to make the offense his own. His job is to make what the Rockets do even better. The good news for Paul is playing that way should extend his career as he moves deeper into his 30s. The bad news is that guys who aren’t irreplaceable sometimes get replaced. The Rockets’ best lineup Tuesday didn’t have Paul in it, so he sat in crunch time.

D’Antoni found a lineup that clicked with just under five minutes left. The Rockets went on a 13-5 run in the final four minutes with Harden, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Harden and Gordon initiated the offense, while Ariza, Tucker, and Mbah a Moute spread the floor, moved the ball, crashed the boards, and played hard-nosed defense. It’s tough for Paul to guard anyone on Golden State because of how much size he gives up. This play against Shaun Livingston in the post is a perfect example of his problem. Paul fights tooth and nail to push him out to the elbow and prevent him from getting a clean look at the basket, but when Livingston raises up for the shot, there’s nothing Paul can do but hope he misses.

GIF of Shaun Livingston shooting over Chris Paul

Nothing is set in stone in October. Paul will close out the vast majority of Houston’s games this season; not many teams can take advantage of an undersized perimeter player as ruthlessly as Golden State can. He will only get more comfortable in D’Antoni’s system. Watching Paul reinvent himself will be one of the most fascinating story lines in the NBA this season. He has never averaged more than 5.0 3-point attempts per game in a season, which would have been only the sixth-highest average on the Rockets last year. How will one of the most disciplined players in the NBA adjust to playing for one of the most freewheeling coaches? Paul doesn’t need to pace himself anymore. He can take as many shots as he wants. D’Antoni turned Harden into a point guard last season. His next trick will be turning Chris Paul into a shooting guard.

Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker Beat Golden State at Their Own Game

Golden State normally has an overwhelming advantage in size and athleticism when it goes small. Few teams in the NBA have wings who can match up physically with their counterparts for the Warriors. The Rockets have three. Mbah a Moute and Tucker were Houston’s most impactful additions on Tuesday, combining for 34 points and 10 rebounds on 12-of-18 shooting. They are two of the most versatile defenders in the NBA, battle-tested veterans who can switch screens and defend bigger players in the post and smaller players on the perimeter. As Harden said after the game, Houston has a lot of dogs on its roster now. Watch how Tucker bullies Golden State on the offensive glass in this pivotal possession in the final seconds of the game:

P.J. Tucker getting an offensive rebound

The Rockets played super small. Clint Capela, their starting center, played only 18 minutes. Nene Hilario and Tarik Black, their two primary backups at the position, didn’t play at all. Houston had either Anderson or Mbah a Moute at the 5 for most of the game. Mbah a Moute (6-foot-8 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan) and Tucker (6-foot-6 and 245 pounds) are built like tanks, and the Warriors don’t have any traditional big men who can punish in the paint. They both signed at a discount to chase a title, and their defensive versatility at least gives the Rockets a chance to match up with Golden State.

The most encouraging aspect of their play, though, came on the offensive side of the ball. Mbah a Moute was 2-of-3 from 3. Tucker was 4-of-6. They made the Warriors pay for leaving them open behind the arc, even though neither has ever been a knockdown shooter in his NBA career. Mbah a Moute is a career 32.4 percent 3-point shooter; Tucker’s career percentage is at 35.3. However, Tucker has never played with Harden or Paul before, and Mbah a Moute has never played with both. They will get a steady diet of wide-open shots all season. The more 3s they make, the more dangerous the Rockets will become.

Life in Golden State Without Draymond

The other key turning point in the fourth quarter was Draymond Green going down with a knee strain. Before that, Draymond had put together a near triple-double with nine points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. His ability to lock down the paint allowed Golden State to play just as small as Houston, and running the offense through him allowed head coach Steve Kerr to rest Kevin Durant and Steph Curry at the same time.

The Warriors didn’t have many options but to go small once Draymond went out. They kept JaVale McGee on the bench, and David West couldn’t keep up. Jordan Bell, Golden State’s promising second-round pick, was baptized by the Rockets in his NBA debut. Harden and Gordon seemed to take special delight in tormenting the rookie when he was switched on them. Bell was the Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12, but there’s still much he has to learn about guarding a star as crafty as Harden. The Warriors’ best option was sliding Durant up to the 5, but that’s not something they’ll want to rely on much in the regular season.

Draymond’s departure made the absence of Andre Iguodala, who was out with a back strain, more noticeable. Iguodala is one of the best defenders in the NBA, and not having him on the perimeter made life more difficult for Golden State’s big men. Zaza Pachulia, David West, Kevon Looney, and Bell took turns up front. None can protect the paint against much dribble penetration. The Warriors need at least one of their defensive mainstays, if not both, against elite teams.

Strength in Numbers

Kerr and D’Antoni are polar opposites in terms of how they manage their bench. D’Antoni traditionally has one of the shortest rotations in the NBA. Kerr has one of the longest. That held true Tuesday, with Houston playing only eight guys and Golden State going 12 deep. There are pros and cons to both philosophies. D’Antoni rides his players hard, which is one reason his teams tend to have big regular seasons and underperform in the playoffs. Kerr, on the other hand, famously stuck with Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejão in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, playing guys with little chance of beating the Cavaliers in a series with zero margin for error.

Kerr is taking the long view after his team made three straight NBA Finals appearances. This season is an 82-game practice session for Golden State. It’s more important for him to get guys like Bell reps in a big game than play the veteran with the best chance of pulling out the win in October. The hope is they will improve in ways their younger counterparts in Houston, who may be glued to the bench for most of the season, will not. Kerr gave big minutes to rookie Patrick McCaw in last season’s NBA Finals, something D’Antoni never would have done.

Nick Young? Nick Young!

Swaggy P wasted no time making a first impression Tuesday. Young, like his former and current teammate JaVale McGee before him, is in basketball nirvana. He shot 40.4 percent from 3 on seven attempts from deep per game last season, and his only job in Golden State is to hoist even more. Young had 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting against the Rockets. He fills one of the few holes in Golden State, a lack of consistent 3-point shooting outside of Durant, Curry, and Klay Thompson. Ian Clark and Matt Barnes, two of the best shooters in the Warriors’ supporting cast last season, are gone, and neither is anywhere as prolific from deep as Young is. He won’t shoot 85 percent from 3 all season, but he should have the best numbers of his career. Defenses can’t guard everything.