The Rockets came within a whisker of losing to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night at Toyota Center. Riding a six-game winning streak and heading into All-Star break, it wouldn't have been all that surprising to find the Rockets going down to an inferior opponent. The game before a break can be a trap for teams not good or mature enough to recognize its importance. For a while on Wednesday, it appeared the team was prepared as they blew out to a 19-point third quarter lead.
But, the Wizards chipped away and with 4 seconds left in the game, they had a two point lead. Fortunately, former Rocket Trevor Ariza lost his damn mind and fouled James Harden before the inbounds pass could be put into play giving the Rockets one free throw and possession. Harden sank the shot from the charity stripe -- one of the 16-16 he shot from the line -- and then drove to the basket on the last play for a Eurostep lay in and, ultimately, the win.
It was an exhilarating win, but having to get to that point was equally exasperating. There will be more games like this, but if the Rockets intend to be a serious contender, they still have some work to do.
5. Feed the post.
Dwight Howard has been a beast recently. He's averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks over the last 10 games. No wonder the Rockets are 8-2 in that stretch. Part of the success has been due to the fact that his teammates have learned how to get him an entry pass. As Matt Bullard is happy to remind fans during the broadcasts, the entry pass is an art. He should know, he fed that same pass to Hakeem Olajuwon who knows how many times. But, in addition to allowing Howard to take advantage of inferior defenders -- something he faces quite often in this center-deprived NBA -- it forces teams to double team him and leaves his teammates wide open. The Rockets have the offensive weapons to exploit double teams and it should lead to plenty more wins.
4. Take better threes.
One way to make teams pay for double teaming Howard is from beyond the arc. The Rockets have been a terrible three point shooting team this year, ranking 21st in percentage despite taken more threes than any other team. But, in the last 10 games, they have shot 38 percent, a full three percentage points higher than their season average and, if maintained, would put them in the top five in percentage. One of the keys to doing that is taking good threes. Too often this year, they have forced up shots from distance on isolations or in transition. Getting shots in the flow of a half court offense has taken them half a season to learn, but there is no reason to think it won't result in a better percentage from beyond the arc. 3. Incorporate Omer Asik.
It appears as if the Turkish backup center who was so unhappy about the Howard signing will remain a Rocket for now. Some of that has to do with the Rockets desire to maintain post defense for 48 minutes. The $15 million balloon payment that Rockets owe Asik next season might be the other reason. With the team unable to come up with a suitable trade, Asik will be stuck here and it seems he has accepted his new role for now. Not only can he provide defense they lack when Howard is out, but he can help cut down on Howard's minutes as they head down the stretch and into the playoffs.
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2. Cut down on bad turnovers.
The Rockets are second in the league in turning the ball over. This is not surprising considering they are also one of the top teams in the league in possessions and in fast break points. Their breakneck pace will frequently lead to turnovers, but it also leads to easy baskets. The tradeoff, the stats say, is worth it. Still, the dumb turnovers are a problem. Many that came from not knowing teammates' tendencies have gone by the wayside, but they still make ill-advised passes and make some ridiculous mistakes at times. The team can likely live with 14 or even 15 turnovers on most nights, but they have to cut down on the games with 20-plus.
1. Defend the perimeter.
Without question, the biggest weakness for the Rockets is guarding players outside the paint and the vast majority of the responsibility for that weakness falls on the shoulders of Harden and Jeremy Lin. Both play big minutes at the guard spots and neither are particularly good defensively, though they have improved as the season has gone on. Harden still maddeningly swipes at opponents as they drive by him. There is no lack of effort, however. Both Lin and Harden work hard on defense, they just don't always move their feet and get caught out of position too often. One area they have improved in is three point defense. Their close outs on shooters have gotten much better, but they have to stop guards from penetrating and forcing their big men to cover. It leads things like foul trouble, easy shots and giving up offensive rebounds. Close down some of that and they will be a formidable opponent, particularly in this guard-centric Western Conference.