Houston Rockets: Changes They Must Make Heading into the Playoffs

Peter OwenCorrespondent IIApril 8, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 06:  Courtney Lee #5, Samuel Dalembert #21 and Chase Budinger #10 of the Houston Rockets wait for the start of play during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on April 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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At the time of writing, the Houston Rockets sit tied for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

In a week's time, they could be fifth. They could be 10th. That's how crazy the West has been this season, impossibly tight with several evenly matched teams very close together in the standings.

The Rockets look favorites to make the postseason, grabbing a spot out of the three available to the five teams in the scramble (the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz follow within 1.5 games).

The Rockets have done so on the back of a stunning half-season by Kyle Lowry, who has promptly gone missing with a bacterial infection, holding him out of play for the past three weeks. Along with Lowry's early-season performances, replacement point guard Goran Dragic has been playing at an All-Star level, allowing the Rockets to keep their slender lead in the West alive.

Heading towards the playoffs, the Rockets have a few changes to make that should give them the best shot at getting one over on their first round match-up, which looks like being either the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Lakers.


Free Throws

The Houston Rockets sit 27th in the NBA in free throws attempted per game (FTAPG). Really, not very helpful.

The ability to score with the clock stopped is essential in tight playoff games, where coming back from a deficit is difficult at the best of times. The Rockets attempt just 19.9 free throws per game, while playoff rival Denver gets to the line a league-best 27.74 times per game.

The trend is also not good for the Rockets, as they have plummeted to just 15.3 free throws per game over their last three contests (Surprisingly, the Chicago Bulls, owners of the league's best record, are just 20th on the list at 21.4 FTAPG).

How they do it depends on whether their players have the mindset to draw fouls. Some players just don't attack the rim and draw fouls like others do. There's LeBron James, always attacking and getting to the line, and then there's Carlos Boozer, rarely attacking and getting to the line less than most.

If the Rockets can just manufacture a handful more visits to the charity stripe for some free points, they can worry less about knocking down those jump shots.


Get Healthy

Now this is an obvious one. A healthy Rockets team that can boast Lowry at point guard is instantly better than one with Goran Dragic. Although Dragic has been playing at a near All-Star level since he came in to cover Lowry's absence, Lowry is simply a better player.

And imagine if Dragic were to be able to come into the game and play at the same level in shorter amounts of time? How crucial could that be if the Rockets find themselves needing that extra spark offensively?

Kevin Martin also missed time in March (10 games missed), meaning the Rockets played plenty of games deprived of their starting backcourt.

Late acquisition Marcus Camby has thrown off the cobwebs and helped keep the Rockets on track to the playoffs; he had to be eased into the rotation as he was coming off of a wrist injury. The Rockets would do well to be sure that he is not suffering any lingering effects, especially given his age and this long, fast paced schedule.


Consider starting Courtney Lee

Yes, I just said that it's been bad news for Houston losing Martin for some time in March. It was made more tough when it came around the same time that Lowry was declared unfit to play with his bacterial infection.

With no return date set for Lowry, Dragic has performed incredibly since becoming the starting point guard.

I advocate for Lee because, as part of the Dragic/Lee/Chandler Parsons/Luis Scola/Samuel Dalembert lineup, Lee makes up one-fifth of the Rockets' best unit this season. This group averages a staggering 114.6 points per 100 possessions, a sky-high figure.

On top of that, Lee is a much better defender than the sieve-like Martin, and although his offensive output is no rival, he makes up for those misses with better effort on defense, effectively offsetting his lack of offense compared to Martin.


The Marcus Camby effect

The Rockets nabbed veteran center Camby at the trade deadline, and since his slow return from a wrist injury, he has become an increasingly important part of what the Rockets do defensively.

Against the Grizzlies at the end of March, Camby reeled in a mammoth 16 rebounds, a huge total, many of which helped keep the Rockets' noses in front and two of which came on the offensive end and helped ensure victory in a crucial Western Conference matchup. 

As the playoffs approach, Houston needs to get Camby more minutes. And as his wrist heals, he'll become a better threat offensively, albeit only slightly.


Earn it

Not so much a change as a fact. The Rockets have big games all the way to the regular season finish line, with just two games against tanking teams (one of which is against Sacramento, playing as I write, the other is against New Orleans), both of which are capable of stealing victories on their home courts.

Perhaps the biggest test of the Rockets' playoff pedigree will be the back-to-back home-and-home series with the Denver Nuggets April 15 and 16.

The Nuggets are just a half-game back from Houston and the season series (and the tiebreaker) is split at 1-1; at least a split of the series for Houston is a must, as this would make divisional record the tie-breaker should the teams end up tied record-wise, a stat in which the Rockets currently trump the Nuggets.