By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HOUSTON -- Given their most recent playoff history, the Houston Rockets would be the first to attest to the folly of peeking ahead at what’s to come before finishing the business at hand.
But with little to no resistance from the Utah Jazz through eight quarters of this first-round Western Conference playoff series, it might be an appropriate time to at least entertain a few questions about this version of the Rockets and what they might be capable of in the near future.
First, are they better than they were a year ago, when they hosted the Golden State Warriors in a Game 7 on this same Toyota Center floor?
“I think James [Harden] is having a better year than he did last year,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of the reigning Kia MVP. “I think Chris [Paul] is healthy. I think, yeah, we’re definitely better. We haven’t proved it yet. But yeah, I think we can be better.”
Better prepared to deal with the Warriors in a potential matchup in the Western Conference semifinals?
The coach of the team standing in the Rockets' way right now certainly sees an opponent that has grown and matured compared to the crew that whipped his team in the conference semifinals last season.
“It’s hard to say that a team that could win  games is better,” Utah Jazz coach Quit Snyder said Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) before his team was thumped by the Rockets for the second straight time, 118-98 at Toyota Center. "But I think what they’ve gone through throughout the course of the year, the identity that they formed last year as a group, I think they have that.
"But any time a group is together for a longer period of time, you get CP and James having played together for the second straight year, you add [Kenneth] Faried and add more depth there, and guys like [Danuel] House and [Austin] Rivers.
"You go across the board, they play in many respects the same way, but they’ve seen more in terms of how people have tried to guard them, so they’re more prepared I think, just with nuances, and more connected in certain situations. You guys have seen that in the last few months. They’re playing great.”
How great remains to be seen. We won’t know for sure until the Rockets are challenged in a series, something Utah hasn’t been able to do thus far.
The Jazz have lost back-to-back playoff games by 20 or more points for the first time in franchise history. Overall they’ve lost five straight to the Rockets, who are clearly playing with a different edge right now.
Instead of looking past the Jazz, they are focusing on taking them apart in preparation for what comes next.
The series shifts to an arena in Salt Lake City that will serve up as merciless an atmosphere as you can find in the league for visiting teams. Give up the kind of wide-open looks the Jazz missed throughout a sloppy second half Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time), turn the ball over 18 times in a hostile, electric environment, and things could get much more interesting.
“We gotta hoop,” Paul said of the way the Rockets can maintain their laser focus on the road. “We’ve been there before. They’ve been here, we’ve been there. It’s two teams that’s very familiar with each other. And us, we’ve got enough vets to know that we did what we were supposed to do. You win your home games. And Game 3 will be a big game for us. We know they’ll be a lot more comfortable going into their home court with their home fans. Fortunately, we’ve been there before.”
That sort of collective experience is guiding the Rockets these days. Well, that and the relentless leadership of Paul and Harden, who collected his second career 30-point playoff triple-double.
“Chris and James, when they are getting us going and pushing and being aggressive,” Rockets swingman P.J. Tucker said, “they make it easy for all of us.”
It looked so easy Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time), even with the Rockets losing some of their edge after taking that huge halftime lead. D’Antoni warned against it, knowing his team saw what happened to the Warriors and their 31-point advantage against the Clippers Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) in Oakland.
But every time the Jazz did anything to rally, at least as best you can when you suffer through the fifth-worst three-point shooting effort in postseason history (8-for-38, 21.1 percent), the Rockets had an answer.
Whether it was Harden or Paul attacking the guts of the Jazz defense, challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim or finding shooters spaced all over the floor, the Rockets’ offense was clicking. And they were every bit as relentless on the defensive end, swarming to loose balls and scrapping for every inch around the rim.
“Yeah, we’re locked in,” Harden said. “I think some of the things we didn’t do well [tonight], we didn’t take care of the basketball. I think we had 18 turnovers; that’s way too many. Like I said (in the) on-court interview, we can’t have 18 turnovers on the road. They capitalize, especially at home with 3s and layups. So, we’ve got to take care of the basketball, get good shots, and that allows our defense to get back and set up.”
It’s clear that there’s no room for complacency this time around. Not for a team bent on revisiting the golden opportunity that slipped through their grasp last season.
Because the Rockets, to a man, believe they are the team built to pull off the true shocker of this postseason and dethrone the Warriors.
That’s been clear in the way they’ve played since the All-Star break, when their wounded bodies started healing and the old and new faces started meshing together into a cohesive group.
“Obviously, we are confident,” D’Antoni said. “I thought we were confident all year. Even when we were 11-14, they were confident. They were driving me crazy, but they were confident. ‘Oh, we’ll get out of it.' They’ve always had the belief once they get healthy, they lock in. And we’re as good as anybody, if not better than everybody. It’s a good level. Now, the series kind of starts and we got to be ready for them.”
So as much as what’s going on with the Rockets right now is focused on the Jazz and to a greater extent the Warriors, it’s really just about the Rockets.
A team that dropped to fourth in the playoff standings on the final night of the regular season could end up doing what a 65-win juggernaut with the best offense in league history could not.
The Warriors have never looked more vulnerable, more like … well, like the rest of the teams trying to scale the mountain Steve Kerr’s crew has in three of the past four seasons.
All the Rockets want is another crack at it, with this deeper, more resolute bunch than the group that reached the doorstep of The Finals last season. They want it this time with a core group that’s been through moments that either fortify you or break you.
They want another shot at handling the business at hand and that unfinished business, too. And they’ll attack it with a renewed internal focus.
“You know what’s crazy?” Tucker said. “We always just focus on us. We don’t really focus on the other team, we don’t focus on what they are doing. We always just talk about us. And I’ve said this and they always kind of just messed up my quote, but, if we do what we do, I don’t think anybody can beat us. And that’s a fact. I don’t care. If we come out every night and we talk and communicate and when our two guys get going and they are aggressive … we’re tough.”
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