After losing their first two games at home, the Houston Rockets were in a bad place. Only three teams in NBA history have managed to win a playoff series after losing the first two games at home– the 1969 Lakers, 1994 Rockets and the 2005 Mavericks– and LaMarcus Aldridge had just joined Kobe Bryant (2001) and LeBron James (2009) as the only active players to score 40+ in consecutive playoff games. Harden shot only 14/47(29.8%) from the field, and the Rockets looked finished. The Script started to flip as Houston took games 3 and 5, they were playing better, and Dwight Howard started to dominate. The Rockets found a new spark, as their role players started to do better. Troy Daniels was hitting big threes all over the place, a hint of Linsanity was coming back and Chandler Parsons was playing great, culminating in a great offensive rebound and put-back to put the Rockets up two with .9 seconds to go in game 6.
Then this happened.
And suddenly it was all over.
After a great regular season where they finished with 54-wins, a feat the team managed only twice in the last 17 years, the Rockets were out of the playoffs after the first round. In their postgame interviews Kevin McHale and Dwight Howard looked to be a mixture of sad, frustrated and disappointed. Something you’d expect from a team with legitimate title aspirations, and who Jeff Van Gundy predicted to win the 2014 NBA title.
But the Western Conference playoffs can be brutal like that, and every team that even made it to the playoffs in the West is a great team. It seems ridiculous that the only series in the West that didn’t go seven games had three OTs and was decided literally at the buzzer. This is as close a six-gamer as you will find, and the Rockets actually managed to outscore the Blazers over the span of the entire series (although by only +2 points). A combination of bad luck, poor execution and down right nutty shot making by the Blazers was the difference, and if one play had been different here or there, the Rockets might have been the ones standing victorious at the end.
A great season and building toward the future
Generally it’s considered somewhat of a benchmark of title contention to be ranked in the top-10 in both offense and defense, and Houston was right on the cusp of that the entire year, ranking 3rd and 12th respectively, for a combined net rating of +5.5, the 5th best mark in the league, per NBA.com. James Harden and Dwight Howard made the All-Star team and when they got play together Patrick Beverley (who missed a third of the season due to injury) the Rockets were a +9.1 points per 100 possessions, which would rank first in the league. The played at one of the fastest paces, shot more of their shots at the rim and from three than anyone else, and avoided mid-range jumpers like the plague, establishing a entertaining style of play that did a lot of the things that an efficient NBA offense is supposed to do. There’s no doubt this years Rockets were a great team.
People are already starting to jump on the “Houston’s analytics are useless, they just got beaten by LaMarcus Aldridge who shoots mid-range jumpers and Daryl Morey hates that”- bandwagon, which is utter nonsense, and all the time you hear cliches like: “You live by the three and die by the three” and in the playoffs running teams can’t win. First of all the Rockets didn’t lose because of their offense, they scored at a rate that would rank number 1 in the league in the regular season, it was the inability to stop the Blazers that was the problem. They allowed a terrible 111.8 points per 100 possessions, which in contrast would have been ranked last by far(and that includes Philadelphia). Although the sample size was small and the Blazers are better than your run-of-the-mill team, you just can’t play defense that bad and expect to go far in the postseason. All of the Rockets perimeter players absolutely HAVE to get better at the defensive end, James Harden in particular was beyond horrible, standing up straight, lazily recovering to his own man and letting back door cuts happen all over the place. Wesley Matthews did a wonderful job really taking it to him in the post.
The offense does need some fixing, the Rockets went to Dwight on the post way too much this year, even though he is statistically one of the worst post players in the league. The Rockets were a poor at executing in the fourth quarter, they went from scoring offensive rating of 110.3 in the first quarter to 105.4 in the fourth and OT, the equivalent of going from the best offense in the league to somewhere close to league average. Too many possessions where there’s no movement and everyone just watches Harden isolate.
Harden is a great player, but isolation tends to be a low-efficiency play, no matter how good you are.
The Rockets posted up Howard way too much, where he ranked poorly at 124th in the league per Synergy Sports. Dwight has a major turnover problem in the post and is too mechanical in his moves to ever be a great straight up post player. Stan Van Gundy and the Magic did a wonderful job putting Howard in better positions to succeed in the post. Instead of just posting up Howard would get pick and rolls designed so that he could roll to the paint, seal his man and get great position under the basket, at which point it’s not really a post up as much as a dunk. An example of this is shown below, where Howard ran a pick and roll on top with Turkoglu, Hedo swings the ball to the corner when Dwight rolled. Look at the position he can get off of this type of action!
Howard isn’t quite the athlete he once was, but there’s no doubt he could be utilized better. According to Synergy Sports 53% of his possessions on offense were post ups and only 7% in the pick and roll, where he ranked 3rd in the entire NBA! And even though Howard has always posted up a lot, it’s more a matter of HOW he gets them.
There has been murmuring about Houston being a possible Carmelo Anthony this offseason, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey has stated that he wants to pursue another superstar. Even if they don’t get a third All-Star on their team, they are young and the road map to improvement isn’t one shrouded in mystery. Parsons, Lin and Harden all have to work on being better defenders, and coach Kevin McHale needs to add stuff to the offense to make it more creative in the half court. On a team with so many weapons there should be no excuse for the offense to bog down like it sometimes does.
This is an awesome play that we don’t see enough, where Harden posts up and Dwight screens for him, and it’s almost impossible to guard. Please give us more fun stuff like this to enjoy!
The Houston Rockets are young, talented and already very, very good. This year’s playoff disappointment is just growing pains, part of the process of becoming a great team. The scary part is that they aren’t close to reaching their ceiling yet, and if they can better in some small, tangible ways, the Rockets will be a title threat for years to come.