It's a shame that this whole Donald Sterling mess is sullying what is the best first round of the playoffs in NBA history. It has certainly been the most competitive with multiple fascinating story lines and more than enough heart-stopping drama for fans in cities around the league. And while the NBA deals with an old billionaire bigot, we in Houston try to figure out what is ailing the Rockets.
Reactions on message boards and even commentary from marginally reputable blogs seem to run the gamut of blame from players to the coaching staff to the style of play. It is tempting to blow up one guy for his failings, and there is definitely room for sniping at certain players, but this is a team sport and the failings of the Rockets in this first-round series can be shared.
To say the performance of the alleged best player on the team in this series has been forgettable would be an understatement. I am loath to pile on Harden because he clearly means so much to the team, particularly on offense, but his shooting problems thanks mostly to my new most hated player in the league, Wesley Matthews, pale in comparison to the borderline negligent play on the defensive end of the floor. It's impossible to watch him let his man blow by him time after time after time without wondering if he is even making an effort. It could be excused last season when he was literally the only legitimate offensive weapon the team had. But with Dwight Howard and the continued development of Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, there is no reason Harden's defense should be so abysmal.
My father-in-law, a die-hard Boston Celtics fan seemingly from birth, was skeptical of the McHale hiring, which was hard to believe considering his allegiances. And, for the most part, McHale has been a solid coach. But this playoff series has left anyone watching to question if he is the right guy for this job. For two straight games, he allowed LaMarcus Aldridge to steamroll the team with no defensive adjustments at all. His play-calling in crunch time is more than suspect -- unless you consider "give it to Harden and clear out" your best option. Most important, it doesn't really seem like the team has adjusted to much of anything throughout the series. McHale has obviously been outcoached and it does not bode well for his future with the organization.
Everyone's favorite whipping boy probably gets more blame than he deserves thanks to the fact that he is perhaps the most hyped backup guard in league history. He is like the Asian basketball version of Tim Tebow. And as badly as Lin has played at times -- the boneheaded turnover at the end of regulation in game four, which essentially cost the Rockets the game, is one of a handful of most significant plays in this series -- he is, was and probably will continue to be a mediocre point guard. Anyone who understands basketball knows this, Linsanity notwithstanding. It's why he has no business being in there with the game on the line.
At one point in the fourth quarter of game four, the Rockets played outstanding team defense, rotating all over the floor and forcing a bad shot. I literally could not believe it. Unlike the Rudy Tomjanovich and Jeff Van Gundy teams of the past, this Rockets team plays virtually no defense, relying instead on scoring to win games. That may work in the regular season, but in the playoffs, it is a fool's errand. Shooting is inconsistent. Solid defensive effort does not have to be. It's bad enough that, aside from Patrick Beverly, Omer Asik and Howard, this is a team of poor defensive players. But when you factor in the lack of effort on that end of the floor mixed with a serious lack of discipline when it comes to being in the right place to contest shots, you have all the makings of a team that can't stop anyone when they need to most.
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I heard a stat on the radio that the Rockets were 1-13 from the three point line and shooting less than 25 percent overall in the last five minutes of regulation or overtime with a score within 5 points. That has been the scenario in essentially every game of the series and in every one of those games, the Rockets have failed to execute. I'm not sure if they tighten up or Portland gets better defensively -- maybe both -- but whatever the case is, that is a disturbing realization that is difficult to quantify and, as such, hard to know how to fix. They probably can't fix it this series or even this year, but they better take a hard look at those numbers in the offseason and start figuring it out for next year.
I understand that the ire of fans is often turned on their own team (and occasionally the refs), but it often feels like fans believe their team is playing against no one. Whatever we may think about Portland, they have been the better team the entire series. They clearly have had the best player in Aldridge and the best defenders in Matthews and Nicolas Batum. They have hustled more, hit more shots and won...fairly. Granted, they haven't won by much and these two teams are very evenly matched, but this was a series nearly everyone had marked as a win for the Rockets, most fairly easily. Sure, the Rockets have had substantial failings, but a lot of those can be directly attributed to their opponent.