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A Houston Rockets Q&A with Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic

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James Harden is seeking revenge

NBA: Houston Rockets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After a crushing and frustrating loss in Chicago on Wednesday, the Sixers, in search of another impressive win, head to Houston to face a unique Rockets team. To get some insight on the Rockets and this matchup, I talked to Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic Houston.

Question #1: What James Harden has been able to do for the last few months has been hard to believe. However, many are concerned that his high-usage style won’t be as effective in the playoffs, both due to the way he will be defended and officiated, and the idea that he will get tired out. Are these concerns valid? How much stock do you put into them?

James Harden has been putting in more time weight-lifting to make sure his legs and body will hold up. He’s always lifted, but is putting more emphasis on it this season so his body is able to last. Often after games, Harden and other teammates will go through a postgame workout. Harden also goes through plenty of endurance and skill work throughout the year so he’s capable of playing at a high level throughout the game and in the playoffs.

I would argue his style of play is suited well for the postseason. Teams will go through three different defenses to prevent him from isolating and attempting a step-back 3-pointer (shooting 41%). Defenses will try to trap the ballhandler and get the ball out of his hands and force a teammate to score. They’ll also shade him to the right, funneling him towards the help defense, with the thought process of shading to the side and forcing him into the Big to only attempt a floater. As a left-handed shooter, shading his left shoulder makes it easier for him to drift right and square his shoulders towards the rim. Lastly, defenses will force him left with his dominant hand, but bring help defenders over and make him play in a crowd. Having a step-back jumper that is efficient and effective makes it difficult for teams to find a rhythm defensively, rather they’re constantly having to mix up coverages. That’s where Harden takes advantage; paying attention to the low man and help side defense before making his move.

Question #2: The Rockets gave Chris Paul a four-year, $160M max contract this summer. And while his play has been encouraging since returning from injury, he seems to have become an injury-prone player whose age is finally impacting his production. How worried are Rockets fans about the way that contract’s value may deteriorate?

Chris Paul averaged at least 18.0 points per game, 7.0 assists per game and 5.0 rebounds per game in fewer than 32.0 minutes per game in each of the past two seasons. No other player has done so once. He’s averaging similar numbers again this season across the board. He is looking much better since his return from the hamstring injury, especially since the All-Star break. He’s getting into isolation and taking bigs off the dribble, but not as much as last season where he was second in the NBA in isolation, just behind Harden. The Rockets are confident in his ability to run pick-and-roll at an elite level. Spread shooters around him in the half-court and he’ll probe and find shooters or get into his mid-range jump shot after snaking pick-and-roll. The Rockets’ second unit is the key to their success. Having a future hall-of-fame decision maker on the court for 48 minutes gives the Rockets an elite ball-handler to get their high volume shooters involved on offense. The Rockets pace of play actually increases when Paul is on the floor, almost three possessions faster than when Harden is on the floor. The team plays at their best when they stifle teams with their hybrid switch scheme, force a miss, secure the defensive rebound and push the pace in transition. Chris Paul has been great this season at getting himself and his teammates going in transition, especially in the first six seconds of the shot clock.

Question #3: Now, to tonight’s game specifically. What is one matchup within Sixers-Rockets that you’re excited to watch unfold?

I‘m excited to see how the Rockets defend the shooting that the Sixers have all over the floor. Tobias Harris is on an incredible streak of scoring 20 or more points since the All-Star break. Houston is very aggressive on perimeter defense, with the daily game plan of keeping opposing teams off the 3-point line. Can Houston keep Harris off the perimeter and contest his shot-attempts? Can they force him to attack the closeout and have their help-defense rotations ready? That’s what I’ll be watching for. They have the 15th ranked defense post All-Star break, and a lot of that has to do with their improvement on the defensive glass. Can they keep the Sixers away from second chance opportunities and disrupt the rhythm of Philadelphia’s the side-to-side movement? Also, JJ Redick has always been a decent Harden defender. I’m excited to see that matchup.

Big thanks to Alykhan for taking the time to answer our questions?