Ultimately, it makes little difference where the Rockets play this postseason's opening series. As much as fans would like to see them survive and advance, the chances of doing that are extremely slim. Now, opening up against the current Western Conference champions, that task gets even more difficult. The Rockets lost to Phoenix and LA to close out the year, dropping them all the way from the sixth spot to the eighth spot, demonstrating just how thin the margin is between playoff seeds. The Rockets will open the playoffs in Oklahoma City against the Thunder Sunday while the Lakers will go to San Antonio.
Just making the playoffs was the most important part for this young team, but seeing them lose games down the stretch demonstrated also how far they still have to go.
The season has been a roller coaster with, surprisingly, more ups than downs, but watching the Rockets lose in overtime to the Lakers Wednesday night hinted at where the Rockets need to look in the offseason for help once they do get bounced from the playoffs. It almost feels ridiculous to discuss it, but watching how the Rockets were manhandled in Los Angeles makes it worth discussing.
All year, the Rockets have won with their offense. They have been one of the best-scoring teams in the league, surviving on fast breaks and three-pointers. It made them fun to watch, but left them vulnerable to good defensive teams and opponents with strong front courts. Unlike college basketball, where a good guard tandem can take a team to a title, the NBA still thrives on playing in the paint. As high-scoring teams of the last 20 years have learned, being a great offensive team wins games in the regular season, but defense wins championships.
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Above all, the Rockets must get bigger in the post. After losing Patrick Patterson to a trade, they went with a batch of makeshift lineups that included Greg Smith, Terrence Jones, Dontas Montejunas and Thomas Robinson at power forward. Maybe one of those players develops into a big-time starter or maybe not, but they must figure that out.
The Rockets often got killed on the glass and dominated down low. They outscored most teams in the paint, but that was due more to the break than to playing in the post.
Also, they must get better guarding the perimeter. For years, I have believed that the hallmark of a truly great defensive team is how well the players rotate and how quickly they close out on shooters. James Harden MUST become a better defensive player if he is to be mentioned with the best in the game year in and year out.
The fantastic news is that this is a very young team no one expected to do much, yet they are in the playoffs. They also have a boatload of cap space and a bunch of young talent. This is a fun time to be a Rockets fan. Let's hope they build on what they have done this season both in the playoffs and the offseason to come.