It would be nearly impossible, just days after one of the most heartbreakingly awful losses in team history, to try and grade the Rockets season. At this point, all I remember when Damian Lillard hit that three pointer was an entire sports bar in Austin letting out a collective "NO" and my friend slamming his bar stool over and over to the floor while yelling at the top of his lungs. So, I'm going to set aside, for the moment, my feelings on the season and instead first focus on what is to come.
When thinking back to the shortcomings of the Rockets over the course of the regular season and playoffs, it was clear that those weaknesses were magnified when they reached the postseason. That is almost always the case. Things teams do well tend to take a hit and things they do poorly often become more pronounced, particularly if the opponent is savvy enough to exploit them. That was certainly the case with the Rockets when facing Portland.
To improve, it will take more than just Xs and Os. They will need to overhaul the way they think about the game. Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to two titles after he learned to trust his teammates. It was his change of mind-set that reshaped the team and altered its fortunes. This squad needs a similar shift in thinking if it wants to get beyond the first round and deep into the playoffs.
GM Daryl Morey's philosophy that threes and points in the paint are the only shots worth taking the majority of the time is well known to basketball fans. But, in order to execute that concept on offense the team must have the players to do it. In Dwight Howard, they have a legitimate post up threat along with an offensive rebounder in Terrence Jones. They also have players who can get to the rim in James Harden and Chandler Parsons. What they lack are three-point shooters.
In the regular season, the Rockets ranked 16th in three-point percentage out of 30 teams hitting almost 36 percent from downtown. In the playoffs, they dropped to 13 out of 16 teams at under 32 percent. This, despite leading all teams in attempts from beyond the arc in the regular season, and trailing only teams that went to a game seven in the playoffs. Their best two three-point shooters were a D-League call up (Troy Daniels) and a guy they traded (Aaron Brooks) at the deadline. Their rotations players (Harden, Parsons and Patrick Beverley) all shot in the mid-30 percent range and only Francisco Garcia got above 35 percent -- barely -- for the season.
For Morey's three-happy philosophy to work, they must improve on their percentages, which likely means bringing in better shooters.
No one who watched the team all season would suggest the Rockets did not give good effort. They clearly were a hard working team, but like so many aspects of the game for them, it was inconsistent. Too often, opponents burned them defensively due to lackluster perimeter defense -- something that is defined by effort -- and they got down too easily when their own shots weren't falling.
This can be, to a degree, a result of inexperience. This was the youngest team in the playoffs and certainly the least experienced even with Howard. Bitter defeats like the one in Portland can have the effect of pushing players to be better. Good teams often get better because their will to win becomes as strong as their hatred of losing.
Howard said after game six that he told the other players you can never sit back on your heals or things like Lillard's three happen. He knows this is a problem in the locker room that must be corrected to avoid collapses like the ones so common to the Rockets this season.
How many times this year did we see Jeremy Lin get in the air and not know what he was going to do with the ball or James Harden drive the lane just hoping for a foul or Dwight Howard try to throw a pass across the teeth of the defense when double teamed in the post? The answer is too many. The Rockets were the second worst team in the NBA in turnovers in the regular season. Some of it is attributable to learning each others' games and some of it is due to the breakneck pace at which they played. But they also had more than their share of brain farts.
Even more critical than the lapses on offense were those on defense, where understanding where to be at the right time is the difference between your opponent getting a good shot and a bad one. Ask Damian Lillard about that.
Like many problems the Rockets had, this was partially attributable to youth and lack of time together. Teams that normally make deep playoff runs have been together for a while -- Spurs, Heat, Thunder, for example. The longer the core of the Rockets is together, the more likely this will slowly begin to change, but it starts with each individual player and his preparation.
On Media Day last year, all players could talk about was the importance of defending. They cited it as the key to their season. Statistically, they accomplished their basic goal. They were a top 10 defense in many of the key statistical categories. But, that obviously didn't tell the whole tale as their inability to get stops with regularity was a significant problem and their individual defense, particularly on the perimeter, was God awful.
Harden got a lot of the blame and rightfully so (see video above). Too often he simply did not give great effort on that end of the floor. But, the entire team was so frequently a nightmare on defense with poor rotations (or no rotations), lack of closing out on shooters and far so many blow bys that the faint sound of "Ole!" often reverberated through the rafters at Toyota Center. Being in the right spot on the defensive end of the floor, especially with the rules substantially tilted in favor of offensive players, is essential to good defense.
Effort can be improved simply by the players demanding it from one another, but scheming defense will have to come from the coach. We'll see if they can make that adjustment.
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The last play of the playoffs for the Rockets was a microcosm of the entire season. First, Parsons and Beverley decided to switch assignments at the last second with Parsons moving to cover Lillard and Beverley moving over to Mo Williams. They did this ostensibly to counteract the double screen being set for the Portland point guard. When the ball came in, Beverley was out of position and both Rockets were caught off guard giving Lillard a head start and tons of space.
Where the ball was being thrown in, Terrence Jones was standing with his back to the post. This is probably a decent strategy if your greatest concern is a pass down there, but with Howard on LaMarcus Aldridge, it was unlikely to be a good shot and, more importantly, nothing was of greater concern than a three pointer, which would win the game and did.
Speaking of D words, these were the details that led to disaster. And while the most glaring examples of the team's lack of on-court discipline might be on the defensive end of the floor, there were plenty of them spread throughout their play to be concerning, and probably the single biggest reason to question Coach Kevin McHale this season.