TULSA, Okla. — On the first play of the second half of Tuesday’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chris Paul brought the ball up the court and passed to James Harden, who drove around him, into the lane, and assisted on a corner three.
On the second play of the second half, Chris Paul brought the ball up the court and passed to James Harden, who drove around him, into the lane, and threw the ball back to Paul. Another three.
On the third play of the second half, running the same play, the Thunder just fouled Harden. That was enough of that.
It only took one preseason game to start seeing how this will work. Chris Paul has never played with someone like James Harden, but that doesn’t mean he never wanted to.
“It’s cool being the receiver of a lot of the passes that I give. It’s cool to get a chance to do both,” Paul said. “I’m enjoying this.”
When the Houston Rockets traded for Paul in June, the pairing was sometimes set up as a classic unstoppable-force-meets-an-immovable-object paradox: Paul as a ball-dominating, tempo-slowing point guard who is being injected into Mike D’Antoni’s frantic-paced system. Could he and Harden — last year’s assist leader — each get the ball enough?
Paul has seemed downright bemused at these questions. Harden, asked if he and Paul had anything to prove this preseason, had a one-word answer before the game: “Nothing.”
Yes, Paul has never played with a ball handler like Harden, but he’s never had a chance to. His most memorable backcourt mates have been Peja Stojakovic and J.J. Redick, two players who always worked best running around without it. He can be headstrong, but it stems from him being a veritable basketball savant, one who understands the game as easily as we write sentences. Paul must appreciate how beneficial this new situation can be for him, especially as a 32-year-old. He keeps saying as much.
“It’s nice not to have to be in a ball screen every single time,” Paul said afterwards.
For D’Antoni, a crucial element to the Rockets’ basketball analytics-driven success last season, this is a gift from heaven.
“The more point guards you can have on the floor, the better,” D’Antoni said.
Consider a three-minute, 18-second flurry early in the second quarter a formal reminder of what this team can do. It started with 10:32 on the clock, and when it ended, the Houston Rockets had scored 20 points. It lasted seven possessions, and they scored on all seven. Six of the possessions ended in three-pointers.
It was exactly what the Rockets did to opponents last year, with one crucial, terrifying difference: Harden watched it all from the bench.
This is how the Chris Paul era began for the Rockets. For the game, Paul notched 11 points and seven assists in 21 minutes — and was plus-15 while on the court. During that 3:18 stretch mentioned above, Paul assisted on four of the six three-pointers and hit another one himself.
It’s best not to oversell preseason stats, even if they do correlate loosely to regular season performances. Still, the Rockets launched 55 three-pointers and made 24 of them. No team in league history has ever attempted 55 three-pointers in a game ... except for last year’s Rockets, who did it four times.
Houston still has the shooters. They’ve added even more versatile wings (signing both P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute this summer), an essential element when facing the Warriors. Now they have a second passer who’s just as brilliant as the first.
Paul said that his time spent playing with Harden in various summer leagues this offseason has helped them develop chemistry. They certainly looked like longtime teammates in the first game. Paul has even picked up a pass that’s a favorite of Harden’s, an around-the-back bounce pass to find an open shooter on the wing.
It would be premature to assume that nothing could go wrong with this duo. Paul’s intensity contrasts with Harden’s more casual approach, even if both are deeply committed to winning. Everything’s easy when shots are falling; when they don’t, perhaps Paul’s natural inclination to order slow-moving set pieces will peek out from his new, quicker-shooting self.
Still, if Paul wants to play off the ball more, then it’s hard to imagine any scenario where this doesn’t work. When he did it in Los Angeles, Paul was brilliant — he shot 49 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season! The Clippers simply couldn’t afford to take the ball out of his hands like the Rockets can.
This is good for Harden, too. D’Antoni has looked to reduce his workload — “if he lets me,” D’Antoni jokes, ever fearful of Harden’s glare. The Rockets successfully did that last year, shaving about 90 seconds off his usual 38 minutes per game, but D’Antoni says that lowering his responsibilities would help, too. Neither Harden nor Paul is The Point Guard. They’re just point guards.
“It’s just a flow,” Harden said. “You don’t know [who will initiate the offense].”
Harden was in a good mood after the game, even after learning the post-game fare had run out of spaghetti. He had already said the duo had nothing to prove that morning, and he doubled down on it to the same reporter with a grin afterwards.
“I told you nothing is going to change,” he said. “We’re going to have fun.”