While there are many hurdles left for the Houston Rockets to clear en route to cementing their status as legitimate title contenders, the challenge they faced and conquered Saturday night in Portland could prove landmark as opponents continue canvasing methods to keep the Rockets' high-powered offense contained.
The Trail Blazers' gambit was clear: Keep the Rockets inside the arc and siphon off their unique ability to bury foes with volume 3-point shooting.
Singularly, that strategy worked as Portland limited Houston to just 25 3-point attempts, roughly 20 below the Rockets' league-leading average. Mix in a formidable challenge to the Rockets' improved defense, and the Blazers fashioned the makings of an upset, carrying a 14-point advantage into the fourth quarter.
However, what Houston possesses is offensive versatility, and its ability to concoct adjustments again paid dividends as guard James Harden mounted a series of rim attacks to pace a 40-point final frame and a 124-117 victory, the Rockets' ninth consecutive win.
The Rockets are 10-0 with guard Chris Paul in the lineup and proved once again that, perhaps when 3-pointers aren't an option and if their defense appears shaky, they remain a dangerous outfit.
"A little adversity when we needed it," said Harden, who poured in 48 points. "We needed it. We've been beating teams by 15-plus (points), so it was good to lock down when we needed to, get stops when we needed to and give ourselves the best chance at winning."
As they prepare to kick off a season-long seven-game homestand on Monday night against the New Orleans Pelicans (14-13) at Toyota Center, the Rockets (20-4) appear primarily burdened with the chore of meeting their own elevated expectations. They survived a three-game road trip stretched over seven days, lingering in Los Angeles for nearly a week before and after their win over the Lakers, only to rout the Utah Jazz and outlast the Trail Blazers.
Now, with so many games at home in succession awaiting them, complacency could be as dangerous an opponent as any of the teams the Rockets will actually face. Their ability to remain in peak form, or at least present some acceptable approximation of it, will be critical.
The Pelicans, even given their inconsistent play of late, are certainly a viable threat. New Orleans continued its six-game run of alternating wins and losses with a 131-124 home victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night, posting a season-high point total in the process.
New Orleans has regressed defensively from where it ranked last season, but its offensive options are daunting. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have materialized into the frightful tandem many anticipated, but against the 76ers, it was Jrue Holiday who did damage with a season-high 34 points, 19 in the fourth quarter as the Pelicans erased an eight-point deficit.
"I guess it was just my turn at that time," Holiday said. "Obviously, we were down and I was having a rough time passing the ball, so at that point, when the starters came back in, I just had the hot hand and they just kept on feeding me."
That skill and scoring depth has carried the Pelicans thus far. Their ability to summon that offensive punch against the superior teams in the league will forge their developing identity. And it doesn't hurt to have an in-form point guard. Rajon Rondo dished out a season-high 18 assists Sunday to go with 13 points.
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