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2 HOUSTON ROCKETS

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A MODEST PROPOSAL ...

DOUBLE DOWN ON DEFENSIVE COMMITMENT

The reason the Rockets came within a strained Chris Paul hamstring of the NBA Finals is that they dedicated themselves to defensive precision. From October through May they rehearsed the exact coverage they would use against the Warriors. Switching wasn't a situational counter, but a way of life. As a result, Houston shut off Golden State's access to easy points, nearly derailing a a dynasty.

Much has changed for the Rockets since then, starting with their personnel. At the heart of Mike D'Antoni's switching D were three hyperflexible wing defenders, two of whom (Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute) are now gone. In their stead are a solid defender in James Ennis and a chronically uninterested one in Carmelo Anthony. And assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who served as a defensive coordinator under D'Antoni, decided to retire about a week before training camp.

The Rockets' style will only work if they stay sharp, and they can only stay sharp by reinforcing the right habits all year long. Known for its explosive scoring, Houston has to again make lockdown defense an unwavering priority.

STARTING 5

COACH MIKE D'ANTONI

2017--18 RECORD: 65--17

PREDICTION: Lose conference finals

PG CHRIS PAUL (8 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

7.9

APG

SF ERIC GORDON (49 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

18.0

PPG

PF P.J. TUCKER (85 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

37.1

3FG%

C CLINT CAPELA (35 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

10.8

RPG

30.4

PPG

SG JAMES HARDEN (4 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

A year after leading the league in assists, Harden was tops in points per game—making him the first scoring champ in Houston Rockets history.

BENCH

SF CARMELO ANTHONY [NEW ACQUISITION]

PF MARQUESE CHRISS [NEW ACQUISITION]

SF JAMES ENNIS III [NEW ACQUISITION]

(*) NEW ACQUISITION

(#) SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING

ENEMY LINES

A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP HOUSTON

I DON'T think they win 65 games again. It's always hard for teams that have dream seasons to sustain them. Last season might have been their window.... Can JAMES ENNIS, P.J. TUCKER and GERALD GREEN replace what Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute brought? Those guys didn't care about scoring, guarded their men and had a proven track record.... The main guys are getting older. CHRIS PAUL always seems to get injured at the wrong time.... JAMES HARDEN is the toughest guy in the league to guard because he's so clever with the ball and can score at every level. Unbelievable finisher, shot creator, passer, he gets to the free throw line 10, 11 times a game. It's just about sustaining his energy so he can have the same impact in the playoffs, which he hasn't always had. That's why ERIC GORDON was a huge factor for them, not just scoring off the bench but being able to close games.... CARMELO ANTHONY has to be a more efficient shooter, because he's not going to get the kind of touches he's had his whole career. He may not play late for defensive reasons.... If BRANDON KNIGHT'S healthy, he'll help. If Paul goes down, Knight is a more capable backup than anyone they've had.... Paying CLINT CAPELA [$90 million over five years] was a smart move. He makes their system flow when he's running the floor and hitting the seams. He's so coordinated as a finisher.