PHOENIX — The “bumps” coach Mike D’Antoni said he expected while incorporating Chris Paul into his offense weren’t evident in the Houston Rockets’ record-setting 142-116 rout of the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.
Paul, a nine-time All-Star point guard who pushed for a trade from the LA Clippers to the Rockets during the offseason, was spectacular in his return after missing almost a month because of a bruised left knee. He registered a double-double in 21 minutes, scoring 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting and dishing out 10 assists with only one turnover.
Harden, a perennial All-Star guard with whom Paul opted to form a partnership, padded his NBA scoring lead with 48 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and recorded seven assists.
“James knows that every night he’s not going to have 48 and stuff like that, but we just try to play the right way, make the right plays and move the ball,” said Paul, who had not played since the Rockets’ season-opening win over the Golden State Warriors. “It’s fun. It’s fun playing like that because of the energy with our team. We know it’s not going to be easy like this night in and night out, but we talk, we communicate and that’s what helps.”
Houston had the highest-scoring first quarter in franchise history with 45 points, 41 of which were generated by Paul and Harden, who combined for 18 points and eight assists in the period. The Rockets scored 45 again in the second quarter — 23 by Harden, all while Paul watched from the bench — to set a franchise record for points in a half with 90.
“I thought there was something wrong with the score,” Harden said of the Rockets’ halftime point total, which had been accomplished only twice before in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55), according to ESPN Stats Information.
Harden, who leads the league with averages of 31.8 points and 10.1 assists, recorded the 40th 40-point game of his career and narrowly missed his second 50-plus-point performance of the season. He made 6-of-11 3-point attempts and all 18 of his free throws. At one point late in the first half, Harden had 33 points on only 11 field goal attempts.
“I’ve never seen somebody score so effortlessly,” Paul said.
Paul, who played a minute over the restriction of 20 for his return, described himself as “gassed” at times during the win. His production tailed off after halftime, but Paul appeared in Hall of Fame form in the first half, when he had eight points on 2-of-4 shooting and eight assists.
“He looks really good on the court,” Harden said. “Obviously, he looks comfortable. The more he gets his wind back and he gets more minutes, he’ll get even better.”
Asked if Paul looked rusty, D’Antoni grinned: “Nope. I hope there was a lot [of rust]. I don’t know if he can get any better than that, but if he does, it’ll be scary. You forget how good he is. He was hurt the last exhibition game and then the first game of the season, and you kind of forget how good the guy is. It’s nice to get him back.”
The Rockets scored 33 points in the 13 minutes that Paul and Harden played together. Paul had eight points on 3-of-5 shooting and four assists when he shared the floor with Harden, who had 13 points on 3-of-7 shooting and one assist in those minutes.
However, Houston was more efficient when the Rockets had only one of their All-Star playmakers on the court. According to ESPN Stats Info, Houston’s offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) was 118.0 with Harden and Paul playing together against the Suns, 121.8 when Paul played while Harden rested and 147.4 when Harden played without Paul.
By comparison, the Warriors lead the league in offensive efficiency with 114.5 points per 100 possessions.
“It just felt fluid,” said power forward Ryan Anderson, who scored a season-high 24 points and hit 6-of-10 3-point attempts, five of which were assisted by Paul with the other coming on a feed from Harden. “It didn’t feel like we were extra hot tonight. We were just making the right plays, scoring well and just getting easy buckets. Obviously, Chris helps with that. He’s an easy guy to play with.”