The first time I turned on a Bob Ross special, I didn’t expect to be amazed. But 10 minutes in, I couldn’t turn away from the television. When Ross’s finished painting emerged, I couldn’t believe how he had turned a blank canvas into a scenic depiction of a cold winter near a mountain. Every detail looked printed, not painted. I had trouble comprehending how the elements of the painting had come together, even though I had seen it come into being with my own eyes.
That’s how it feels to watch a James Harden isolation. It’s art that surprises. Much like a succession of Ross’s seemingly random brushstrokes turn into a masterpiece by the end, Harden’s patient dribble on the perimeter before he swings into action is what leads to the reward. It often seems like it takes forever for Harden to swing into action, but once he moves, he’s a lightning bolt — either pulling up before the defender can realize it or blowing by him with ease. Watching the guard take his time on the perimeter becomes a parlor game. What is he going to do this time?
On Wednesday night, during the Rockets’ matchup against the Clippers in Los Angeles, which ended in a 105–92 Houston win, Harden turned every defender into his puppet. He rendered them all catatonic at least once — CJ Williams, Tobias Harris, Austin Rivers, and above all, Wes Johnson, in a move that left Johnson on the floor collecting his thoughts, the internet in awe, and the entire arena buzzing like a beehive.
“I was trying to figure out what happened,” Harden said postgame about his now-legendary pause and stare down at Johnson. “I was confused.”
“He’s so good, he confused himself,” Luc Mbah a Moute piped up at a locker close to Harden.
“You don’t see things like that all the time,” Eric Gordon said. “I definitely laughed. Everyone is gonna be talking about that for a while.”
To call him simply “methodical” is to do Harden a disservice. He’s omni-intentional. Every offensive move seems calculated and artistic, a balletic performance fueled by emotion. When Harden was asked about his thoughts during the play, he simply said, “Same as it always is. Kill.”
Everywhere in Staples Center on Wednesday night, there was evidence of Houston’s unabashed aplomb. The Rockets have won 14 straight games and are undefeated in February. Yes, they’ve heard about the Warriors, and yes, they know they have yet to prove themselves come postseason. But what Harden’s deadly crossover crystallized was clear: The Rockets believe that they’re the best team in the league, and they’re talking and playing like it.
Clint Capela is young, but doesn’t lack much in the way of confidence. Aside Harden and Chris Paul, he’s the third head of the Rockets’ talented trinity — a trio that has gone 34–1 while playing together. The 23-year-old center is averaging a double-double and posting a 65.7 effective field goal percentage — best in the league among players who are averaging 25 minutes or more per game.
“I think I am that piece,” Capela said an hour before posting 22 points and 14 boards, including eight on the offensive glass, against the Clippers. The Swiss notes that the Warriors are weakest at center, and that in a potential conference finals matchup, he could be a difference-maker. “We know we can beat them. We have the team for it. We’ve played them, and two times we proved that we can beat them. So, of course, as a basketball player you have to bet on yourself, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
On the court and in press conferences, the Rockets are not afraid to lean into their contender status. What’s more, they are taking pride in their ability to become a basketball chameleon. Coach Mike D’Antoni and Harden both talked about how they love the myriad ways in which they have been able to win. Slow, fast, normal pace, with 3s, with isos, with points in the paint — it doesn’t matter as long as it works, and it’s all working right now. During this streak, the Rockets — known typically for pace — have been last leaguewide in possessions per game, down from eighth. They’ve also had the lowest assist percentage in the league over the last 14 games. Why pass or run when Harden is doing stuff like this:
“We have everything we need,” Mbah a Moute said. “We’re fortunate enough to have the personnel and the system.”
“We believe we’re the best team in the NBA,” Tarik Black said before Wednesday night’s game. “When people say, ‘You’re almost at [the Warriors’] level,’ that’s not our mentality.”
Black is one of the many role players that the Rockets have added to complement their core. The sixth-year center has been limited to 10 minutes a game, but he’s done more for the team than just grab rebounds. He’s part of the reason why before every away game Rockets equipment manager Anthony Nila grabs a roll of tape and a black Sharpie and places a strip above each player’s locker with their nickname and number in bold.
Black is “Reverend,” Mbah a Moute is “Prince,” Gerald Green is “Boy Wonder,” Harden is “El Chapo,” and the newly arrived Joe Johnson is “Joe Crack.” Trevor Ariza is just “One,” while Capela is “Swizy.”
“It’s camaraderie. The guys love it,” Nila said. He said that Black was behind many of the nicknames.
“Ryan [Anderson] is the original,” Black said. “When I came on the team … we started coming up with nicknames for everybody, and they started running with them. So, now everybody has a nickname.”
Black talked about how the team has bonded this season, and how it has led to positives on the court. “We have the camaraderie to go around [our talent],” he says. Black, like other Rockets, speaks of confidence, belief, and faith in the team’s makeup like a salesman trying to get me to buy a timeshare. It’s easy for him to see they’re in good hands when he’s on the bench and sees Harden going to work, or when he’s on the court and watches Paul do his thing. The Rockets believe they are better than the Warriors. Black puts it simply: “I think our talent level exceeds that of any team.”
The conversation leading up to Wednesday’s game focused on the postgame antics from the Rockets’ last matchup with the Clippers, which had stayed a talking point in the building even though Blake Griffin, who was later traded to Detroit, had not. It was hard not to bring up the supposed bad blood between the two teams.
“We’ve barricaded all the secret passageways,” joked Clippers coach Doc Rivers before the game. “We’re gonna build a wall. How about that? And I’m not paying for it, Houston’s paying for it.”
But by the end of the night, the tape covering the door leading to the Clippers’ locker room was barely a story. All anybody wanted to talk about was Harden’s crossover, the perfect encapsulation of Houston’s current attitude, which had already gone through dozens of meme cycles.
Feel free to mention how it seems inevitable that the Warriors will win it all again. The Rockets aren’t buying it. They’ll point you to their 2–1 head-to-head record this season, and the standings, too. Both are tied atop the West. That’s the only reason they admit to keeping an eye on Golden State. The Rockets want the top spot, both now and in May.
“Golden State is still there. Golden State is still the best … but we like what we’re doing,” D’Antoni said at the postgame press conference. D’Antoni tries to be a realist, the counterbalance to the players’ confidence, but even he can’t help but be positive about just how good his team has been. “We just feel like we can win every game right now.”
“I think around the NBA a lot of teams are talking about us in their locker room, saying, ‘How can we get past them?’” Black said, as the Warriors’ game against the Wizards played on the TV next to him. “I think we’re a bigger roadblock, and a bigger roadblock for [the Warriors] as well.”