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'They're not guarding us': Inside Houston's shot to stop a dynasty

As Houston coaches gathered in a Las Vegas high school gym in July to watch what they assumed would be a casual pickup run between summer leaguers and the real Rockets, a scream pierced the air.

"FLARE SCREEN!" someone yelled with Game 7-level urgency. "FLARE SCREEN!"

The Rockets were ready to recruit Chris Paul if he became a free agent. Though they didn't need the video, CP3 wanted to see it anyway, as reported by Zach Lowe. Here it is, courtesy of Rockets.com.
It was Chris Paul. A few minutes later, Paul stopped the scrimmage, jogged over to the coaches, and asked how the Rockets defended an action the summer leaguers had just run.

"It was like Christmas," says Jeff Bzdelik, Houston's associate head coach and defensive coordinator. "Chris is a militant, and I mean that in a good way."

James Harden, the incumbent star who sometimes approaches defense with the slumped indifference of a teenager asked to take out the garbage, was familiar with Paul's militancy by then. He accepted it when he urged Daryl Morey, Houston's GM, to nab Paul after years of unrequited pursuit. He had witnessed it face to face a few days after the trade, when Paul reached Harden at night and said he wanted to meet -- right then -- at a restaurant in Los Angeles.

Paul had been waiting to ask Harden one question: "What is your ultimate goal in basketball?" Harden said he wanted a title. "He said he was excited about not having to do it all -- about getting the ball out of his hands a bit," Paul remembers.

That's easy to say in July. It's also easy to say when you're 25-5 with a historic offense and rugged, switchable defense, the first true non-LeBron threat to Golden State's hegemony, but the two stars have felt the benefits of the arrangement sooner and more profoundly than they expected.

After Monday's win over Utah, Mike D'Antoni, Houston's coach, apologized to Paul for playing him 34 minutes -- more than their target. Paul waved him away. "Thirty-four here is like 25 in L.A.," Paul told D'Antoni. "Not having to dribble the ball up every time -- this is a breeze."

Paul knows he is caricatured as a walk-it-up general who likes to bark orders and signal plays. He insists that is wrong. "It's neither here nor there at this point, but I was asking for a while to get the ball out of my hands," Paul says.

When told of skepticism about that, Paul sits up in his chair. "How many times have we run floppy this season?" he asks, referring to a curl play for J.J. Redick he might have called a thousand times. A visitor shrugs. "Come on, guess." Ten? "Ze-ro," Paul exclaims. "Zero. We don't even have floppy in the playbook." D'Antoni hasn't installed a single Paul-specific action.

Meanwhile, Harden wilted in last season's conference semifinals. Houston officials insist they saw exhaustion sapping him as early as Game 1 against the Spurs -- in part the toll of Harden's relentless pursuit of the MVP award. "He should want to win MVP," D'Antoni says, "but we have to be careful." Irv Roland, a Rockets player development coach who has been among Harden's closest confidantes for almost a decade, says the two have still never discussed Harden's season-ending, 2-of-11 dud.

If they were willing, the stars could help each other stay fresh deep into the playoffs. Morey first had that vision in the summer of 2013. Paul's representatives have told Morey the Rockets might have nabbed Paul then had the Clippers not finalized their deal for Doc Rivers before the start of free agency, Morey says. The Rockets signed Dwight Howard instead.

As Jackie MacMullan reported in the fall, Paul kept the custom bobbleheads Houston prepared for that 2013 courtship. The Rockets traded for him this time around, but after the deal, Paul insisted on watching the videos (displayed below) Houston put together for the July 1st free agency pitch meeting that never happened -- "even the iPad stuff everyone makes fun of us for," Morey says.

Morey and D'Antoni expected some early awkwardness. They thought Paul would need time to absorb the freedom and pace of D'Antoni's offense. Even role players do. In one of Raja Bell's first games under D'Antoni in Phoenix, he bricked a catch-and-shoot 3 early in the shot clock and sheepishly asked his coach: "Was that a bad shot?" the two recall. D'Antoni answered with a question: "Did you think you were gonna make it, Raja?" Bell did. "Make it next time, and it'll be a good shot," D'Antoni concluded.

"I thought we'd have some bumps," D'Antoni said. "But from Day 1, they just figured it out."

The results have been scary. Houston looks like a legitimate challenger to the Warriors, and they have only begun experimenting with some lineups variations -- small-ball looks with P.J. Tucker at center, and hyper-speed groups featuring Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon. They are daring to imagine how those three-guard lineups would match up against the Warriors: Who would play power forward? Would one of the three Houston guards defend Draymond Green, so that nominal power forward could chase Durant?

"They set the bar," D'Antoni says. "But we think, modestly, that we match up well against them."

They are underdogs, maybe big ones, but Morey has long promised that he will go for it if he thinks Houston has even a 5 percent chance of winning a ring. He will hunt likely LeBron this summer, per league sources, and hopes to sign Paul to another long-term deal. With Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza headed toward free agency, just bringing this group back could vault Houston well into the luxury tax. Tilman Fertitta, the team's new owner, has said he would pay the tax to preserve a contender.

"We think we have a five-year window with Chris and James," D'Antoni says. A max deal for Paul would be a risk given his age and injury nicks, but Morey will gamble to wring everything from Harden's prime. "It will be up to Chris," Morey says, "but we feel good about it."

Of course, the Spurs exist, and they blocked Houston's path to the conference finals last season. That series has driven much of what Houston has done since, and reinforced their instinct that Paul would add a needed diversity on offense. San Antonio found a smart way to defang Houston's pick-and-roll barrage, and it has spread around a copycat league.

San Antonio's Harden Rules: The big man guarding Capela, Harden's main screener, plants himself deep in the paint -- opening a runway to the rim, and conceding midrange jumpers Houston refuses. That defender has one job: Wait for Harden to arrive, and raise your arms to the sky.

Author: Zach Lowe, ESPN

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