It prompted Harden to hop off the bench, do a jumping high-step and greet his fellow perennial All-Star playmaker with a leaping chest bump.
Other than that, Harden rested during the Rockets' 4-minute, 42-second spurt that turned their home game against the Charlotte Hornets into an early rout.
For those who have been watching the red-hot Rockets on a regular basis, it really wasn't that surprising.
That's not a slight on Harden, who has earned the right to be widely considered an early MVP front-runner, significantly improving after finishing second in last season's voting. Yet the Rockets have been at their best during their 11-game winning streak when Harden has rested. Such is the benefit of having Paul, a surefire Hall of Fame point guard, come in fresh to face either second units or tired starters.
"You think about it, that's the weapon we should have over teams," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That should be almost a constant thing."
Oh, it has been.
The Rockets have been really good with their All-Stars on the floor together during the winning streak, which started when Paul returned from a knee injury, outscoring opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions. Houston has been ridiculously dominant when Paul plays without Harden: plus-37.7 points per 100 possessions. If you prefer raw numbers, that's plus-98 points in 120 minutes.
D'Antoni devised his rotation around the plan to have a superstar point guard running the show for every meaningful second the Rockets play. That required some sacrifice from Paul, who starts but checks out about five minutes into each half, a major adjustment for a veteran accustomed to playing the entire first and third quarters. He returns four or five minutes later when Harden gets a breather.
And then the Rockets really getting running, with Paul playing the Steve Nash role from D'Antoni's days with the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns.
"We're rollin'. We be rollin'!" Paul told ESPN, a big smile on his face, after his 31-point, 11-assist performance in the win over the Hornets. "We gone. We gone. ... Defensively, we switch a lot of stuff with that group, and then we get the ball, and we out."
Those lineups, which feature one and often both of the Rockets' versatile reserve stoppersPJ Tuckerand Luc Mbah a Moute, have been absolutely dominant defensively, allowing only 84.8 points per 100 possessions. (Mbah a Moute is expected to miss two to three weeks after dislocating his right shoulder Wednesday. That likely means Trevor Ariza, the versatile stopper in the starting lineup, will play more minutes alongside Paul and the Rockets' reserves.)
The formula is simple: Grab the rebound, get the rock to Paul, run and get ready to shoot.
"We just want to put the pedal to the metal as soon as we get in," Tucker said. "Get stops, get out on the break, fire everything up."
Case in point: Backup center Nene grabbed a rebound to finish the first stop of the Rockets' big run against the Hornets and tossed an outlet pass to Paul, who took one dribble before delivering a 50-foot dime to Eric Gordon, who drained a wide-open 3 on the left wing with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Paul got the Rockets in transition seven times during the run, resulting in 18 points and one turnover.
Paul accounted for 21 of 25 points during the run, scoring 13 points while going 3-of-4 from 3-point range and notching three assists. He even had an indirect hand in the only bucket in which he didn't score or assist himself, keeping a loose ball alive after his lone miss during the spurt, allowing Ryan Anderson to scoop it up and dish to Gordon for another wide-open 3.
Reeling off 25 consecutive points is an extreme example, but Paul feasting against second units has become routine. Check out Paul's per-36-minute numbers when Harden has rested during the winning streak: 30.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 14.7 assists and 3.9 steals while shooting 54.7 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3-point range.
"It's cool. The court is open," Paul told ESPN. "It's almost like when I hoop during the summer and stuff like that. I'm serious, because I've got shooters everywhere."
"The cool thing about it is I create and get guys a shot, and they shoot it. There's been times [with previous teams] where I'll pass it to a guy and they wouldn't shoot, and then they bring it back to you and you've got to create a whole nother shot for them.
"Here, I like it. Just let it ride! Let it ride!"
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