You haven't been following the Rockets very closely for a while. Who can blame you? Up until Sunday night, it had been 18 years since the Rockets made it out of the second round of the playoffs. In fact, they had only made it out of the first round once in that same time period. And they were rarely awful, often just good enough to compete for the playoffs, but not much else. They were in the equivalent of sports purgatory.
But something happened in this series against the Clippers. After mauling an overmatched Dallas team, the Rockets went down 3-1 to the Clippers. Only eight times had a team come back from a 3-1 hole, including the 1995 version of these Rockets, who bested Phoenix, sealing it with Mario Elie's now famous "kiss of death," before winning their second title in as many years. This 2015 Rockets team is the ninth and, for the first time in a very long time, the city is excited about basketball.
Now, I'm going to assume a few things. I will assume you understand the game of basketball and have at least a passing knowledge of the Rockets franchise. This is for you, fan who lost interest in a mediocre team but is ready to jump back on the bandwagon now that they have broken through the Western Conference Finals. Consider this your primer.
Who are the Rockets playing and how good are they?
The Rockets will face the Golden State Warriors, and they are very good. They had the best record in the NBA and frequently won games by wide margins. They are one of the most talented offensive squads the NBA has seen in years. They rolled through a sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round and beat Memphis in six games in round two. They are going to be a handful.
Why are they so good?
You may have heard about James Harden and how he was the runner-up in the MVP voting. Well, the Warriors' Steph Curry won and he is a superb player. In some ways, he is a throwback, a pure shooter who can handle the ball and play defense. His backcourt partner is Klay Thompson, someone who could make a run at MVP himself if he were on a team that didn't have Curry. They are referred to as the "Splash Brothers," owing to their offensive efficiency. Golden State also has one of the league's best defenders in Draymond Green. They are loaded with talent.
So, what are the Rockets' odds?
According to Vegas, long. The expert picks haven't all come in, but most are no doubt going to pick the Warriors, probably in five or six games.
What can they do to win?
The Rockets will need to be the better team on the boards, which will mean they are controlling the paint and not allowing second shots. If the Warriors miss once, they aren't likely to miss again if they get an offensive rebound. They must shoot well, particularly from distance. The Rockets are a streaky team, while the Warriors are consistently great. The Rockets will have to withstand a ton of outbursts by the Warriors and not lose composure. Finally, they have to play with reckless abandon. When they shoot without thought, run the floor and play with great energy, the Rockets are a very tough team to beat.
Besides Harden and Dwight Howard, who are some of the key Rockets in this series?
Trevor Ariza will likely draw the assignment to defend Curry. He won't have a ton of success, but if he can at least bother his shot, it will help. Josh Smith, who was one of the heroes of the massive comeback in game six against the Clippers, will need to play smart and continue hitting big shots. Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer will need to be active off the bench, and it wouldn't hurt if Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni hit a few threes.
Oh, right, you probably don't know who these guys are.
Of the aforementioned players, only Jones was on the roster last year. Ariza was acquired via free agency after Chandler Parsons left for Dallas. Terry, a veteran sharpshooter, was also added in the offseason. Prigioni and Brewer were acquired in a pair of trades just before the trade deadline, and Smith was signed after he was waived by the Detroit Pistons at midseason.
Why so many trades?
Well, Rockets GM Daryl Morey is like a fantasy sports owner, but in real life. The guy makes a LOT of deals. But he also is uncanny in his ability to land the RIGHT guys. It's frankly impressive. He swung and missed in the offseason at power forward Chris Bosh, but the Rockets managed to do just fine. And this was with both Howard and Jones missing more than 40 games a piece due to injury.
Do the Rockets have any other injuries to contend with?
They won 56 games despite losing more player starts to injury than any other playoff team. And if that weren't enough, they lost starting point guard Patrick Beverley and starting power forward Donatas Montejunas right before the playoffs.
You might have heard of the "hack-a-whoever."
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This year, teams employed the strategy of intentionally fouling bad free throw shooters at various times during games to change the tempo of the game or swing momentum. It worked to varying effect, but it is most important to understand how it hurt the Rockets. According to a recent statistical analysis, 75 percent of the intentional fouls committed this year were against only five players. Unfortunately, three of them wear Rockets red. Dwight Howard is the biggest victim and it has cost the team. He only shot just over 40 percent from the line for the series against the Clippers. Because teams can employ this strategy without penalty outside of the last two minutes of the game, it has become rather controversial, and many believe the league will change the rules regarding this in the offseason. For now, don't be surprised if the Rockets have to work around it.
Anything else you should know?
Don't be surprised when the Rockets shoot a ton of threes. They set an NBA record this year in makes and attempts. Morey believes — and Coach Kevin McHale has bought into the strategy — that, statistically, it is better to shoot a three than a long two, which is why the Rockets almost never shoot an 18-foot jump shot. The mid-range jumper is essentially missing from the team's game. Most of their shots are either inside 15 feet, from behind the arc or at the free throw line. This strategy has been maligned by old-school basketball guys, but the final four remaining teams in the playoffs ranked in the top five in three pointers made. The fifth was the team the Rockets just beat, the Clippers. So, like it or not, it is the way the league is going.