CLEVELAND — It isn’t always easy for a point guard with All-Star pedigree to blend in with a team that already features an MVP candidate. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Isaiah Thomas experiment continues to be an unmitigated disaster for the Cavaliers. The pairing with LeBron James has been worse than anyone could possibly have imagined, with Cleveland getting outscored by 14.9 points per 100 possession in the 286 minutes that duo has played together, the seventh-worst tandem in the NBA since Thomas made his season debut in early January.
That’s quite a stark contrast to the Houston Rockets, a contender who added to the Cavaliers’ misery with a 120-88 rout Saturday night in front of an occasionally booing Quicken Loans Arena and a national television audience. Houston is now 23-3 when Chris Paul and James Harden both play.
On a rare off night for Harden, the MVP front-runner, Paul turned in a 27-minute masterpiece. His 22-point, 11-assist, eight-rebound, no-turnover night produced the best plus-minus of his career, as the Rockets outscored the Cavaliers by 47 points with Paul on the floor.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Paul, who was 9-of-14 from the floor, including 6-of-9 from 3-point range, some of which he launched from his good buddy LeBron’s hometown of Akron. “It’s always good when you’re winning, but the spirit’s just been right. We’re just trying to keep this thing rolling.”
Thomas and the Cavs, on the other hand, are trying to figure out how to get out of a ditch. Cleveland is a defensive disaster dealing with a chemistry crisis. Thomas (minus-20 in 26 minutes against the Rockets, scoring 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting with three assists) has been a significant part of all of those serious problems.
In Thomas’ defense, he didn’t ask to come to Cleveland. His heart was broken — and his hip on the mend, sidelining him for almost the first half of the season — when the Boston Celtics made him the centerpiece of the package they shipped off to get Kyrie Irving. He’s a man in an arranged marriage during a contract year.
That’s a far cry from Paul’s situation. He chose Houston, using the leverage of the player option in the final season of his contract to force the LA Clippers to trade him to the Rockets. After years of playoff disappointments, Paul decided he wanted to team up with Harden, cackling when critics suggested that the two ball-dominant superstars would clash.
Chris Paul posts a near triple-double and James Harden adds 16 points as the Rockets roll past the Cavs.
That skepticism seems so silly now, as the 38-13 Rockets have the NBA’s second-best record. Houston looks every bit the part of a legitimate challenger to the Golden State Warriors, whose dynasty over the past few years has been interrupted by a historic upset led by the short-lived LeBron/Kyrie one-two punch.
“Unselfish but selfish at the same time,” Harden said, explaining how he has clicked so well with Paul. “We know when to be selfish. We know when to get aggressive and get in attack mode and looking to score. We’re just playmakers naturally. Never anything forced. … It’s all just organic and natural.”
The Rockets believed Harden and Paul could be co-stars on a contender. But they’d be lying if they claimed they anticipated it being this smooth, aside from injuries that have sidelined Paul and Harden for a combined 25 games.
“You hope, but hope gets you fired sometimes,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “You’ve got to give them the credit. They try to make it work, they wanted to make it work, and they’re making it work.
Chris Paul drives to the basket, pulls off a behind-the-back dribble and bounces a pass to Nene Hilario, who finishes with a one-handed dunk.
“I don’t know the Cleveland situation. Everybody has to go through it, but [Paul and Harden] got together this summer and said, ‘We’re going to make this work.’ And they’ve made it work. That’s our situation. I don’t know anybody else’s situation. They’re terrific. Chris has been nothing but a great leader, and he’s a Hall of Fame player. We’ve got two of them.”
And the Rockets just might have three of them next season.
Houston, as has been widely reported, is expected to be on the short list of teams who have a real chance of winning the upcoming LeBron summer free agency sweepstakes. It would take some roster tinkering — and probably Paul accepting less money — for the Rockets to create the salary cap room to make that happen. But only a fool would doubt that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey can make the cap math work.
As far as recruiting pitches go, the Rockets couldn’t have done much better than Saturday night’s domination.
Who could blame LeBron if he looked longingly at the Rockets and imagined how he’d fit with two of the game’s other premier playmakers? As he’s carrying the biggest burden he has since before his South Beach sabbatical, his Banana Boat buddy Paul is having the time of his life playing with Harden and a bunch of quality pieces that fit with the Rockets.
“It’s a benefit of having a team like we have of veteran guys who were bought here for a reason,” said Houston power forward Ryan Anderson, who scored 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting. “We have guys who know their role. Tonight we played our roles the best we can. It just shows how good we can be. … [Paul] can read the game super well, so it’s easy for a guy like him to fit into a system like this.”
Meanwhile, nothing comes easy for the Cavaliers now. This has gone well beyond Cleveland’s typical regular-season lulls.
“We haven’t played good ball, and we’re getting our butts kicked every game we play on national television,” said James, well aware that the Cavs have lost their last eight games on national TV, often in humiliating fashion. “So I’m just at a loss for words.”
The only voice in the arena that seemed to express confidence in the Cavs’ ability to get out of their rut came from the visitors’ locker room.
“You’ve got LeBron James over there in that locker room. You know what I mean?” Paul said. “What else the man need to do? Like, seriously? Obviously, I’m a little biased, but what else [does] he need to do? If y’all don’t believe in him, then y’all trippin’. Don’t take it for granted, man, don’t take it for granted.”
The Rockets certainly don’t take their chemistry, their spirit, for granted. They know they have something special.