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!" 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.