Is the Unique Game Plan Enough for the Rockets?

Ben McLemore has been the Rockets most consistent three-point threat.
Ben McLemore has been the Rockets most consistent three-point threat. Photo by Eric Sauseda
The start to the NBA restart has been a success. Plenty of exciting games and, most importantly, no new cases of the coronavirus. The Rockets have started 2-1, including a rather dead-legged loss to Portland on Tuesday night. But, even with the solid start with wins over both the Mavs and the Bucks, the question still looms: Will their unique lineup and style of play be enough for a deep playoff run?

You have to give Coach Mike D'Antoni and GM Daryl Morey credit. They are all in without hesitation on small ball. They shot 61 three pointers on Sunday against Milwaukee. They are averaging 54 shots from behind the arc in the bubble. Scoring is clearly not an issue. And their defense, particularly in the fourth quarter, has been really, really good.

But there are two areas of tremendous weakness for the Rockets that leave us wondering if they can survive against the best teams in the league in a long series.

After making the trade of Clint Caplela for Robert Covington, one of the chief concerns was size. How could they defend in the paint and, more importantly, rebound without a big man. They don't start a single player over six-seven. And they have been brutalized on the boards as a result.

Since the restart, they have been out rebounded 174-118. They are giving up 15 offensive boards per game. Even for a team that didn't expect to be in the top 10 in rebounding, that's ugly. That leads to second chance points and creates loads of transition opportunities for opponents, the one area of the floor their defense is weakest.

More importantly, for all the threes they take, they aren't exactly dead-eye shooters. For the season, they are twenty-second in three-point percentage at under 35 percent. During the restart, they are slightly better at 36 percent, but when you take as many as they do, you better make some of them. And while that percentage might be acceptable when you do the math, is it good enough in the smaller micro moments of games?

Shooting 36 percent when you take 50 to 60 threes is probably good enough considering the Rockets make more threes than some teams take in a night. The math tells us advantage Rockets. But we need only look back a few years to a dreadful 0-27 in game seven against Golden State to remind us how disastrous one game of bad shooting can be.

The Rockets are who they are and they aren't going to change. That almost ridiculous confidence has turned guys like Danuel House, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Ben McLemore and Jeff Green (talk about a reclamation) into solid if not spectacular distance bombers. Only McLemore shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc (just barely) and Green is at 39 percent (and better since the restart). That means there isn't a single absolute gunslinger on a roster that fires a boatload of bullets.

As a result, the chances of going cold at the wrong time increases by virtue of the fact that they will continue to shoot them even if they are missing, particularly when they are open. And teams will leave them open to double team James Harden, who is getting that treatment consistently in the last three games.

So, can they win? Absolutely. Can they win big in the playoffs? Of course. Will they? No one can possibly know because it depends on not just sticking to the game plan, but hoping the game plan will pay off consistently. And, right now, there is no way to know if it will. We just hope and hold our breath every time another three gets launched.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke