A friend of mine has pointed out to me that "young" may not always be the appropriate term to use for the current Rockets rosters, particularly when comparing them to Oklahoma City. After all, Russell Westbrook and Jeremy Lin are the same age and James Harden has played with OKC deep into the playoffs. So, for now, I'll rephrase and use "inexperienced," because that they most certainly are.
And after four games played in the postseason, experience is the one thing referred to by virtually everyone watching. Just making the playoffs was an accomplishment -- very few, including myself, thought they would -- and extending the series against the number one seed is impressive even if it only lasts a single game. But the value of the time spent playing -- yet another good reason to extend the series again Wednesday night if they can -- is what fans and analysts alike believe will ultimately turn this from a dynamic "young" team into a contender -- that and another key roster player, but that's for the off season.
So, just what have they learned?
5. Fouls don't come cheap...mostly.
Despite the flop fest we saw in game four, cheap fouls are hard to come by in the playoffs. The intensity and speed of the game over 48 minutes is so high that fouls are missed by officials who can't keep up and some are just not called, particularly against the league's best. This is the nature of playoff basketball where the scores tend to come down and trips to the line are at a premium. Harden is learning the hard way that always looking for contact when going to the basket may work during the regular season (he obliterated the team's free throw record this year), but your best bet in the playoffs is to go into the paint on a mission to score or get it to an open man. Expecting the foul is a good way to get 10 turnovers in a game.
4. Every possession is important.
And speaking of turnovers, they are just such a killer in the postseason. During the regular season, players (and even entire rosters) may take plays, quarters or even entire games off. In the grind of an 82-game season, this is sometimes necessary to prevent long-term wear and tear. Players will tell everyone they give 110 percent all the time, but that isn't actually true...until the playoffs. One thing veterans will tell you is their first trip to the playoffs was a shocker because players never took plays off. Because of that, every possession is golden and turnovers are the devil.
3. Live by the three...
The Rockets like to shoot a lot of three pointers. In fact, they have to. This is not a team with a low post presence or a bunch of great one-on-one play makers. Hitting a lot of shots beyond the arc is also part of a strategy forwarded by hard core analytics gurus like GM Daryl Morey who believes there is less value in a long two pointer than in shots behind the line and close to the basket. The problem with that philosophy is that a poor percentage from three often means a very difficult time winning. Teams can get "three happy" as well, something you can live with during the regular season, but something that can absolutely kill you in a playoff game.
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2. "Hero ball" only works with a true hero (and even then, he needs help).
On the final three possessions of game four, Harden stood with the ball at the top of the key and let the clock run down before forcing up three long jumpers. All missed and it nearly cost them the game. Over the past couple seasons, fans have taken to calling this "hero ball" and few like it unless it works. Harden is not that guy. He might be as he improves and he is the best player on the team, but only the very rarest of the rare have the ability to literally dominate the ball at the end of games. His jump shots may have been a product of not getting calls or causing turnovers in game three while driving to the basket, but, whatever the case, this cannot continue. In the future, he may hit those shots, but Harden and the coaching staff would do well to recognize those plays are not the answer at the moment.
1. Defense wins championships.
One of the most tired cliches in sports got that way because it is largely true. No, teams don't have to hold opponents to sub-thirty-five percent shooting and scores in the 80s. But, critical defense in key situations and the ability to neutralize specific parts of your opponent's game is a huge part of winning in the playoffs. And this is not about one-one-one defenders. Great defenses are often superior because of the team defensive concept, the ability to close out on shooters and rotate appropriately. The thing that has kept the youngest of the Rockets off the floor has been their inability to be in position defensively. They must learn how to defend effectively if they are going to get out of future first rounds.