Chris Paul, Rockets remain confident after frustrating loss to Wolves, but time is ticking in stacked Western Conference

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the aftermath of the Houston Rockets' 103-91 road loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night -- a game in which the Rockets coughed up a 19-point first-half lead, scored all of 29 points in the second half, and put themselves back below .500 more than a quarter of the way into the regular season -- Chris Paul stood at his locker, looking only a bit deflated.

He'd just been through an altogether miserable game. Paul scored only five points -- his fewest points in a game in more than a year -- and made one of his seven 3-point attempts. He'd turned the ball over five times, including one turnover at the end of the first half that his coach had just cited as the moment when the wheels began to come off. His team, which had taken the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference finals six months ago, was in the running for most disappointing team in the NBA so far.

Blame the injuries, blame the suspensions, blame aging players and tired legs, blame the tough schedule, blame the weight of lofty expectations. Whatever it was, this was not how the Rockets' encore to their magical almost-there season in 2017-18 was supposed to begin.

Paul tugged on a pair of red plaid pants and a soft, cream-colored sweater. He fastened a chain around his neck and tugged on a knit cap to head out into the Minnesota December chill.

Before he did, I asked him about his concern with this team. Coming into the season, the Rockets were presumed once again to be the closest thing the NBA has to a challenger to the Warriors' ongoing dynasty. Last year's team was historic, the most efficient offense of all time; this year's team ranks a decent sixth in offensive efficiency and a miserable 26th in defensive efficiency. They're sitting at 11-12 and in 13th place in the West. A year ago, they were rolling at 19-4, en route to a 65-win season. Five more losses and they'll equal last season's total.

And yet while this team certainly isn't pleased with their start -- "Our record ain't that good," Paul said -- they remain relatively sanguine that they'll still be right in the mix when it matters most.

"I'm still not that concerned, to tell you the truth," Paul replied. "Somebody's gotta beat us four out of seven times. I don't see that happening."

Context matters, and the context with the Rockets is this: They may be in 13th place, but they're also only five games out of first place, and a single game out of eighth place, which would be the line of demarcation for playoff teams. Whereas last season things couldn't seem to go wrong for the Rockets, this season has been marked by things that have only gone wrong: Paul's suspension after his fight with Rajon Rondo, followed by James Harden's injury that cost him three games, followed by Paul's injury that cost him three games. When either Harden or Paul has been out this season, the Rockets have been 1-7, with a defense that allows more points than all but one team in the NBA; when both of them play, the Rockets are 10-5, with a defense that allows fewer points than all but five teams in the NBA.

After Monday's loss, coach Mike D'Antoni scolded me for bringing up the notion of comparing this Rockets team to last year's Rockets team: "You shouldn't, because it really doesn't matter. This is our team this year. Who cares? Who cares? That's the Rockets of the past. We can't compare ourselves to Olajuwon or anybody. This is us. We gotta figure this out."

Yet in D'Antoni's own locker room, Paul was making the same comparison, unbidden, noting that last year's team lost 17 games all season while this year's team is already sitting at 12 losses.

"It's a lot different than last year," Paul said. "But once we figure it out, we'll be alright."

He might be right.

Here are the good things about this year's version: Harden is having an almost identical season statistically to his MVP campaign a year ago. Last year, he averaged 30.4 points and 8.8 assists, shooting 36.7 percent on 10.0 3-pointers per game; this season he's averaging 30.6 points and 8.7 assists, shooting 37.2 percent on 11.3 3s per game. He's leading the league in usage rate, just like a year ago.

Clint Capela is having an even more productive and efficient season despite shouldering a much higher minutes load. After signing that five-year contract extension in the offseason, he's averaging 18 points per game -- four points per game higher than a year ago -- and shooting at an even higher rate. He's second in the NBA in field-goal percentage and third in dunks.

"He's better -- he's coming into a man's body," D'Antoni told me about Capela before Monday's game. "He can handle the minutes. When you can handle those minutes, his stats are all going to go up. He used to be playing three or four minutes tired -- he doesn't have that now."

One narrative about the Rockets' struggles is that the team had an offseason where they got markedly worse. They lost two big-time two-way contributors in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and added two fairly useless pieces in the since-jettisoned Carmelo Anthony and the since-benched Michael Carter-Williams (to be fair, the James Ennis acquisition was always a smart one, but not exactly a huge difference-maker). Because of that subpar offseason, they've had to rely on youngsters like Gary Clark, Danuel House and Isaiah Hartenstein, and they've been playing a very short rotation. D'Antoni recently cited the team's depth as one reason for their struggles; the Rockets have the fewest bench minutes and bench points in the NBA.

But D'Antoni brushed off the idea when I asked whether the loss of Ariza and Mbah a Moute was a primary explanation for the Rockets being below .500.

"It's a big-time issue in a sense that we got some new guys and it takes a little while for them to get acclimated," D'Antoni said. "But we got some good players. It became a bigger issue because we lost our guys. Chris is out, James -- we wouldn't have had that issue that much. Last year we started out 17th or 18th defensively and we worked our way up to the top six. I thought we'd do the same thing this year, except we lost our guys, playing a lot of rookies in that period. Now we're back to where we should be, we got a full complement to the roster and we're OK."

They certainly did not look OK in the second half on Monday night. After building up a 19-point lead in the second quarter, an Andrew Wiggins banked-in 3 at the buzzer after Paul's turnover cut that lead to only 14. That seemed to be the moment where the Rockets started to lose focus. In the second half, it spiraled as the Wolves started raining down 3s and the Target Center started to erupt. Part of it is simply the shots didn't fall, and for a Rockets team that's so reliant on 3-pointers, the shots have to fall. The Rockets made only three of 22 3s in that second half, but D'Antoni was pleased with those being mostly good shots and open looks.

It's only one game, but it was a deflating one, and it follows in the storyline of a season where the Rockets, so dominating a year ago, have yet to get right. There are two more games left in this road trip -- against an equally disappointing Utah Jazz team (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, watch on fubo TV), and against a Dallas Mavericks team that's been a pleasant surprise -- before heading home to play the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers. In the Western Conference, there's never time for a breath.

"For whatever reason, in that second half, we weren't playing with any spirit or energy," D'Antoni said. "I'll mark it down as being tired. Give them an excuse. But we're in dogfight in the West. We can't have nights like this where we lose because of just our joy or spirit out on the floor."

The worrisome part isn't just having a bad loss in December. The worrisome part is that every night like this could have major implications come April in this stacked Western Conference.

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