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Hot Takeaways: The Rockets Are the NBA’s Most Dangerous Team Again

Houston continued its late-season dominance in Los Angeles, while a loss to Toronto showed Brooklyn’s Cinderella run may not last long

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Everything you need to know from Wednesday’s most important NBA matchups.

Rockets 135, Clippers 103

While You Were Waiting for the Playoffs, the Rockets Got Good as Hell

Paolo Uggetti: Perhaps no team has benefited more from the fact that the NBA season is long as hell than the Houston Rockets. Houston took until December 17 to get above .500 and then reached contender status with James Harden’s scoring run for the ages. Now the rest of the pieces are coming together around Harden, and the Rockets suddenly look more like the team we saw take the Warriors to seven games in last year’s Western Conference finals. Since February 23, the Rockets have only lost three of their 21 games. Eleven of those 18 wins have been by double digits.

Houston’s offensive brand is so strong that what they do on defense is often overlooked, sometimes even maligned. But since the All-Star break, the Rockets’ defense ranks second best in the league. This improvement was crystal clear on Wednesday night, when the Rockets put the Clippers in handcuffs for 48 minutes; their switch-heavy defensive scheme forced 15 turnovers, and the Clippers had no real answer. On the other end, the best 3-point defense in the league (34.0 percent allowed) couldn’t stop the Rockets from shooting 47 percent from 3 or an efficient Clint Capela dominating the paint for 24 points (most of them on lobs) and 15 rebounds.

The current standings suggest a Clippers-Rockets first-round matchup is likely. And while there would be story lines aplenty—Chris Paul back in L.A., many retellings of the tunnel incident, etc.—it would be a nightmare scenario for an upstart Clippers team trying to continue their feel-good season. The Rockets, meanwhile, could be well on their way to their dream scenario. Facing the Clippers in the first round and the Nuggets in the second would put them up against two teams they’ve beaten by a combined 59 points in the last week, before getting the rematch with Golden State in the conference finals.

Can Houston Believe in Its Point God in the Playoffs?

Uggetti: Because Harden’s escapades feel ordinary unless he reaches 50 points (he still had a ridiculous 31 points on just 15 shots), Paul’s play stood out the most against the Clippers. He finished the night with 29 points and seven assists, as well as several patented Paul highlights like this one:

And this one:

He also made sure to illustrate just how upset he was with the referees. So it was really the complete Chris Paul Experience.

It’s hard to overstate how much Paul’s play and health matter to this Rockets team. His control of the game’s pace is unrivaled, and his midrange game gives them an important failsafe, a dimension they don’t have when it’s just Harden vs. the world.

Since Paul returned from the left hamstring injury that sidelined him for two months, he’s averaging 15.9 points and 8.3 assists, and the Rockets have gone 21-8. And in games in which he scores at least 25 points (like Wednesday night), Houston is 5-0. Paul’s averaging 32 minutes a game this season, which is a hair more than last season, and since his return, it’s down to 31 minutes per game. Houston still has a shot at the 2-seed (it’s 1.5 games behind Denver), so it makes sense that it’s trying to win every game. But as Paul’s right hamstring injury in last year’s playoffs showed us, the margin for error against the Warriors is slim. A little rest before the playoffs might not hurt.

Raptors 115, Nets 105

Brooklyn Gets a Dark Glimpse at Its Playoff Future

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Should the standings stay the same and the Nets meet the Raptors in the first round, their run as NBA darlings will likely end. The matchup works in Toronto’s favor for the simplest of reasons: To be successful, Brooklyn relies on shooting its opponents out of games, and Toronto proved Wednesday it has the stoppers to deter them from the perimeter. The Raptors are top-10 in 3-point percentage difference; teams shoot 0.8 percent worse against them than against the rest of the league. To be fair, the Nets are one place ahead of them in that defensive category. The difference is that if you take away the 3, Toronto will find other ways to beat you.

The Nets aren’t as adaptable, but they aren’t one-dimensional, either. Because Brooklyn leans on the 3 and tends to line the perimeter, it creates openings to drive through the lane and get off shots at the rim. The Nets beat the Raptors in that area on Wednesday, scoring 58 points in the paint compared to Toronto’s 48. That’s no surprise, even against the Raptors defense: The Nets score more points off drives than any other team (31 per game), and are league-leaders in free throws drawn off drives.

But Toronto will force Brooklyn to play more of a complete game. It’s tough to counter a team who can seemingly always counter back, but it’s the little things that will matter—such as turnovers and poor rebounding performances, both of which have hurt the Nets all season.

Pascal Siakam Proves How Much He Improved

O’Shaughnessy: D’Angelo Russell and Pascal Siakam had very different paths to Wednesday night’s matchup, a 115-105 Brooklyn loss to Toronto that could very well end up a first-round preview. (If the season ended today, the Raptors, who are second in the East, and the Nets, in seventh, would meet.) Russell, the second overall pick in 2015, was expected to lead the Lakers into a new era; Siakam, the 27th overall pick the following year, was more of an afterthought. Yet now the two 20-somethings are the top two candidates for this season’s Most Improved Player award.

Which camp you fall in depends on what you think the award should represent. Siakam, who finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists against the Nets, started his career with fewer expectations than his lottery-pick counterpart, but now he’s the more complete player of the two. Both he and Russell excel driving to the basket, only Siakam came into the league a defender. Now the most impressive thing about Siakam isn’t his defense, it’s how much he’s improved on offense. Siakam averages nearly 10 points fewer than superstar teammate Kawhi Leonard but has shown the ability to execute the same shots. The tandem went shot for shot against the Nets; the Raptors looked for either Siakam or Leonard in the elbow or the post whenever they needed a bucket for Toronto to keep its distance. (Both ended with 11 made field goals, though it took Siakam four fewer attempts to get there.)

The awe that Siakam’s growth inspires shouldn’t discount what Russell is pulling off this season. His numbers were similar to Siakam on Wednesday —27 points, seven rebounds, and six assists—but on the season, his scoring numbers are superior; Russell is averaging 21.1 points to Siakam’s 17 (though Russell doesn’t have to share with someone like Leonard), 6.9 assists to Siakam’s 3.1, and 3.8 rebounds to Siakam’s 6.9. Multiple times this season, Russell has come up big in the clutch. Meanwhile, Siakam has the benefit of playing on a much better team. Both are large parts of why their teams outperformed expectations this season; on Wednesday, Siakam was the reason why the Raptors outperformed Russell and the Nets.