The question, admittedly, was a dumb one considering who was being asked.
The Houston Rockets had just dismantled the Miami Heat in AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday night to become this season's first 5-0 team. After the game, I asked Rockets coach Kevin McHale if he thought that people were sleeping on his team a bit this season after famously getting left at the altar by Chris Bosh this summer and parting ways with Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin.
The response was classic McHale, who has long shown little tolerance for media prodding and perception.
"I don't know," McHale said, shaking his head. "I'm going to be sleeping in about 45 minutes. That's the only sleep I'm worried about."
We laughed. He continued.
"I don't know, man," McHale said. "Let me tell you something -- this is the truth, too -- I don't care what anybody thinks. Why would I care what you thought? I don't care about anything. I care about what we do in that locker room with our guys. All that caring goes away as soon as you step on that floor. Then you have to go out there and compete."
Fair enough. Point taken. Nonetheless, the Rockets understand how events unfolded this summer might have looked on the outside. They reportedly told Parsons that they'd match any offer made in restricted free agency and then didn't. They frantically dumped Lin's contract on the Los Angeles Lakers along with a 2015 first-round pick to create cap space to sign Bosh; Bosh didn't sign. It seemed GM Daryl Morey, famously nicknamed "Dork Elvis" by Bill Simmons, had outsmarted himself.
But look at the Rockets now. They've won each of their first five games with eerily symmetrical dominance: 108-90, 104-93, 104-90, 104-93 and 108-91. They've trailed for just 12 percent of their in-game action this season, the lowest rate in the NBA. It's statistically the best five-game start in franchise history. They've outscored opponents by 71 points, the widest margin in the five instances the team has jumped out to a 5-0 record.
However, the way they're winning is more interesting than the actual record itself. The Rockets have strangled opponents on the defensive end. No one should be mapping out a parade route after limiting the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, but the Heat had been shredding opponents until running into Dwight Howard and Houston's revamped defense with 3-and-D specialist Trevor Ariza. The Heat scored just 36 points in the second half, even if it was the Rockets who were the ones playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
To Morey, who watched amid the sold-out crowd opposite Heat president Pat Riley and Lakers legend Magic Johnson on Tuesday night, this is all according to plan. So far.
"First of all, it's really early," Morey said. "But to be a championship contender, we knew we had to become a top defense. We thought [Patrick] Beverley, Trevor [Ariza] and Dwight [Howard] would anchor a top defense, and so far, so good."
The Rockets aren't missing Parsons. Not yet anyway. The early returns are promising: Last season, the Beverley-Parsons-Howard trio averaged 103.2 points allowed every 100 possessions. This season, it's down to 90.2 points every 100 possessions with Beverley-Ariza-Howard. Not a bad start.
In Tuesday's game, Ariza shut down Dwyane Wade in the fourth quarter, holding him to 0-of-3 shooting and causing two turnovers when the Heat needed Wade's playmaking most. Pulling up for airball 3-pointers, Wade wanted nothing to do with Ariza's mobility and length. On one particular play, Ariza poked the ball out from Wade, went down to the other end and pulled up for a dagger 3 in transition to put the Rockets up 103-86. Wade left the game on the next play.
Ariza was, once again, brilliant. He currently leads the NBA in 3-point field goals and field-goal attempts (21-of-35), making 60 percent of his shots from deep. That's not sustainable, but it's worth pointing that out that he's improved his 3-point conversion rate in each of the last three seasons to end up at 40.7 percent in 2013-14. The Rockets did their homework this offseason to make sure Ariza's production in Washington wasn't a contract-year blip.
"We definitely studied up on him," Morey said. "He wasn't a shooter when he came into the league, but he's Ray Allen-like with his routine. He puts in the work. He gets up more jumpers than I've ever seen here. And he made a ton of his 3s in transition where we think he'll thrive with us."
"Moreyball" has certainly rubbed off on Ariza's shot selection. In Ariza's last stint with Houston, 73.6 percent of his attempts came from the efficiency hot spots inside three feet or beyond the arc. So far this season? That number has soared to 86 percent. To us a golf analogy, it's either putts or drives off the tee. Almost never anything in between.
By anchoring the corner, Ariza has opened up more space for Harden and Howard. Last season, Ariza led the league in corner 3s (81), and he's splashed in 11 already, which is a higher total than 25 entire rosters around the league. Ariza made three from the right corner that probably haunted the Heat on their overnight trip to Charlotte.
"Oh, he had some crazy 3s," Howard said of Ariza after Tuesday's win. "But that's what he does. I'm happy to see he's found that shot. We came in together when we played in Orlando and just to see the way he's shooting the ball now, it just amazes me. Real happy for Trevor."
To wit, Ariza never made a single 3-pointer in 89 games next to Howard in Orlando. Not one. He finished his Orlando stint with 0-for-9 shooting from downtown.
It's hard to imagine a better start for Ariza in his second go-around with the Rockets. After trading him away to New Orleans in 2012, the Rockets signed him to a four-year, $32 million front-loaded contract that will offer the Rockets some flexibility to chase free agents down the line. Meanwhile, Parsons will be making almost twice Ariza's salary this season ($14.7 million versus $8.5 million).
Yes, the Rockets have had a soft schedule so far. But blowing out the Utah Jazz and Heat on their home floors on the second night of a back-to-back shouldn't be taken lightly. The road gets tougher from here as the Rockets visit San Antonio on Thursday. But if Ariza can fill Parsons' void and continue locking down the perimeter, don't sleep on the Rockets in the championship hunt.
News and notes
• We can't prove that the grueling schedule has exacerbated the Oklahoma City's sad line of injury woes. Call me soft, but watching Perry Jones III, who eventually left Tuesday's game after bumping his knee (again), and Reggie Jackson limp around the floor the last couple games has kind of made me sick to my stomach. Tuesday was the Thunder's fifth game in seven nights, which seems like cruel and unusual punishment in light of their recent injuries. Of course, no one could have predicted their battered bodies, but the NBA schedule has offered no opportunities for rest or recovery. No wonder some of the world's top sports scientists have avoided the NBA.
• Look at the Wizards! Washington has been notoriously bad out of the gate over and over again, reminding me of Sideshow Bob trying to maneuver his way around rakes. The Wiz started 2-7 last season, 0-12 in 2012-13, 0-8 in 2011-12 and 1-4 in 2010-11. But with a big win against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, the Wizards open the season 3-1 without Bradley Beal. Paul Pierce has fit in seamlessly so far at the 3 and helped with the playmaking in Beal's absence.
• Side rant: Why do we still rely on counting by hand for five-second calls? It's 2014. The NBA has put $15 million in a high-tech replay system that might or might not be slowing the game down, but we can't figure out how to accurately count to five? The Knicks-Hornets late-game debacle should have never happened.
• Today's trivia question: Who has led the NBA in charges taken over the last three seasons?