Dodg­ing ob­sta­cles

DA’ ntoni guides team through win­ning streak, in­juries into sec­ond half that holds as much prom­ise as the first

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - By Jonathan Feigen jonathan.feigen@chron.com twit­ter.com/jonathan_feigen

No mat­ter what has been thrown into their path, the vic­to­ries keep com­ing.

LOS AN­GE­LES — Chris Paul was stunned that half the sea­son was over, but his sur­prise was a state­ment about the Rock­ets at the mid­point and even all that went into the ride to get there.

“Really?” Paul said. “It went fast.” Good times usu­ally do. The 41 games of the Rock­ets’ sea­son have brought them wild swings be­tween highs and lows, for­tune good and bad.

They rolled through a 14game win­ning streak to reach Christ­mas with the NBA’s best record. They slumped through a five-game los­ing streak be­fore re­cov­er­ing enough to win five of seven games and reach mid­sea­son in sec­ond place in the Western Con­fer­ence.

They have bat­tled in­juries great in num­ber (they had seven play­ers out Fri­day night) and im­por­tance (guard James Har­den is out with the most sig­nif­i­cant in­jury of his ca­reer).

Paul likes what he sees

Yet, as they con­sider the road to 30-11, the fourth-best record in fran­chise his­tory at the mid­point of the sea­son, the Rock­ets be­lieved the ev­i­dence of­fers prom­ise for the sea­son to come.

“I like where we are, but I feel we have a ways to go,” Paul said. “Most teams would like to peak at the right time and we still have a lot of work to do. I feel we’re go­ing to be all right.”

The Rock­ets have goals con­sid­er­ably greater than to be all right, but be­lieve they have shown the po­ten­tial to con­tend for a cham­pi­onship. They are 20-4 in games Paul has played, 13-0 in games with their start­ing lineup — Trevor Ariza, Ryan An­der­son, Clint Capela, Paul and Har­den — to­gether. Of their 31 wins, 20 have been by dou­ble dig­its.

“It’s been good,” guard Eric Gordon said. “We met ex­pec­ta­tions, but we def­i­nitely want to have a bet­ter sec­ond half.

“It’s been a wild and crazy year, but that’s why I’m glad af­ter th­ese next few games we’ll get guys back. It’s been a great start, but we have to keep push­ing.”

The Rock­ets have be­gun to turn things around, but in the 12 games since the win­ning streak, the de­fense has ranked 25th in the NBA.

At least some of that can be at­trib­uted to the in­juries and the fa­tigue that has come with play­ing short-handed in a busy stretch of the sched­ule.

With the of­fense sec­ond only to Golden States, the Rock­ets’ abil­ity to de­fend suf­fi­ciently re­mains unan­swered.

“I feel good about it be­cause I think we’ve seen glimpses of what we can be,” coach Mike D’An­toni said. “We haven’t been that in the last month be­cause of dif­fer­ent things, in­juries and a lit­tle bit of dog days.

“Most of it is on the de­fen­sive end. We need to make bet­ter strides. We made them early.

“Hope­fully, guys play less min­utes, they feel good, they’re fresher and de­fense comes back.”

The in­juries also have hurt in de­vel­op­ing chem­istry since nearly half of the ro­ta­tion mem­bers are in their first sea­son with the team.

The of­fense is not com­pli­cated and built to suit the skills of the ros­ter. But de­fen­sively, that chem­istry can be cru­cial, par­tic­u­larly in schemes that rely heav­ily on switch­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

“We’ve been do­ing a pretty good job so far, but I think our po­ten­tial is even more ex­cit­ing,” Capela said. “We’re go­ing to be even bet­ter.

“It’s been kind of hard. With the in­juries, the lineup and ro­ta­tion has not been the same. This is why our po­ten­tial is not at the max­i­mum right now. But the chem­istry is go­ing to be even bet­ter be­cause of the con­sis­tency.”

Still, the Rock­ets have to make up for lost time while chas­ing a War­riors team that has had its nu­cleus to­gether for years, rather than months.

But the Rock­ets have an­swered ques­tions about how Har­den and Paul would mesh and roles around them de­fined.

“We got a great head start to it,” Paul said. “The good thing about our team is we really are to­gether. We have fun and we all un­der­stand what the ul­ti­mate goal is.”

A com­mon goal

They have made no se­cret about that. Though D’An­toni will have dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions when he has to de­ter­mine the front­court to close games, the Rock­ets in­sist they are com­mit­ted to ac­cept­ing what­ever he chooses be­cause of that sin­gu­lar as­pi­ra­tion.

“We all have one com­mon goal,” for­ward P.J. Tucker said. “We want to get the chip.

“We talk about it ev­ery day, play­ing at that level ev­ery night, no mat­ter how long you’re play­ing, what po­si­tion you’re play­ing. Go­ing out and do­ing your job and do­ing it for the team is what it’s all about. That’s what we’re try­ing to achieve.”

With that in mind, the Rock­ets’ is­sues when short-handed are not the point.

They would not be a cham­pi­onship con­tender without Har­den, and likely would not with other sig­nif­i­cant in­juries on the team.

The ques­tion to an­swer, de­spite that “glimpse” in the first half of the sea­son, will be what they can be at full strength.

“We’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a lot through­out the sea­son, which is go­ing to be good for us,” An­der­son said. “I’m glad we ex­pe­ri­enced it through­out this first half, win­ning a lot in a row and then go­ing through that lit­tle los­ing streak.

“But over­all, get­ting every­body healthy and back in this sec­ond half, I’m con­fi­dent we’re go­ing to have a really great fin­ish.”

Yi-Chin Lee / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

In 24 games, Rock­ets guard Chris Paul, left, is av­er­ag­ing 18.6 points and 9. 2 as­sists, and his play with fel­low guard James Har­den has been pro­duc­tive.

Yi-Chin Lee / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Like most of his team­mates, Rock­ets guard Eric Gordon, left, likes how the team has played on its way to a 30-11 first half, but looks for­ward to a bet­ter sec­ond half and a deep run in the play­offs.

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