5 Things to Watch as Rockets Make Playoff Push in Season's 2nd Half
The Houston Rockets snapped a seven-game losing streak yesterday by beating the Charlotte Bobcats 100-94 behind 29 points from James Harden. It was their longest losing streak since the '05-06 season.
The win helped Houston boost its record above .500 at 22-21 and also gave it a one-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the West.
It’s been a hot and cold year for the Rockets, who haven’t had trouble scoring this season but also haven’t been playing great defense, either. They rank second in the league in points per game (104.5) and first in the league in points against (103.5).
To make a playoff push, they are going to need contributions from a variety of players. That starts with moving the ball. Lately, they’re settling for poor shot attempts and not running much of an offense.
Here’s what has to happen for the Rockets to finish the season strong.
Harden Needs to Share the Offense with Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin thrived in New York last season. In Mike D’Antoni’s system, Lin controlled the offense. He drove to the basket, hit jumpers, tallied his assists and made plays with his ball-handling abilities.
This season, after Lin signed for $25 million, he’s been in the shadow of James Harden. Perhaps rightfully so, but the Rockets' decision to let Harden run the offense has put Lin into more of a role-playing position, often standing around the perimeter.
Harden is easily the best scorer on the team, but giving Lin the ball-handling responsibilities will allow Harden to get open and lead to his points without one-on-one isolation.
Lin has still been able to get his fair share of assists. He is averaging 6.1 assists per game, notching a season-high 11 on three separate occasions.
Having Lin run the offense will bring back the successful pick-and-roll, which is essentially what “Linsanity” was centered around; Lin looks to pass first but won’t hesitate to shoot if he’s left open coming off a screen.
A return to the pick-and-roll should work wonders for an offense struggling to find ways to win.
If Jeremy Lin brings the ball up the court on the majority of possessions, it should open up the Rockets offense, and Lin has a knack for finding the open player.
Chandler Parsons Has Breakout Performances
There’s no denying that Chandler Parsons can shoot the ball. Since his days at Florida, he has hit numerous clutch shots.
In his sophomore season, he is averaging 14.4 points per game while shooting .455 from the field to date.
When playing the Knicks in November, New York was focused mainly on shutting down Jeremy Lin, which opened up the door for Parsons. On 13-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from beyond the arc, Parsons was on his way to a career-high 31 points, with 18 coming in the first quarter.
That’s not all Parsons brings to the table. He brings energy to this club with a likable personality, and he knows how to play good, tight defense. His consistency on both ends of the ball will make him a player to watch in the second half.
He can shoot from the outside, he can handle the ball, he rose to the challenge defensively. I think he has a really bright future and I don't say that a lot about a lot of people.
The Rockets have the pieces to make a run in the playoffs; they just have to find a way to get there first, and Parsons is a big piece of that puzzle. He’s a player that could flourish in big games with his versatility.
On this team, Parsons doesn’t have to be the star and often flies under the radar. This has enabled him to fit into his role quite well during his tenure with Houston.
Asik Continues to Grab Boards
The most important player for the Rockets this season has been Omer Asik.
Emerging as an elite center, the seven-foot Turkish national is averaging 11 rebounds per game—tied for fourth best in the league. Asik has notched double-digit rebounds in 25 games, including 10 games with 15 or more boards.
His value comes from all of his defensive rebounds (329 of his 463 rebounds have come on defense). This gives the Rockets defense a bigger presence on the floor. If they wish to improve their defense in the second half, Asik has to continue to dominate the boards.
Teammate Toney Douglas spoke highly of Asik in the beginning of the season,
He’s real good at going straight up and not fouling. That makes it tough to make shots over a big guy. That’s something you just can’t teach. It’s a great thing we have him in the middle to protect the paint.
Asik has proved he deserves to be a starter in this league. After spending the last two seasons in Chicago as a backup, he’s averaging nearly 30 minutes a game with the Rockets, earning every minute.
He’s not relied on to score in this offense, but he's averaging 10.4 points per game and has posted 17 double-doubles, far exceeding expectations.
(Asik) has size, intelligence, great feet, drive and a willingness play for the team. He reacts quickly, anticipates, and he’s relentless. He’s a multiple effort guy.
If he can continue to wreak havoc on the boards, the Rockets will be in good shape come playoff time.
Harden Continues to Shoot
Harden may want to let Lin control the offense, though his shots won’t be going anywhere.
Since his arrival in Houston, Harden has been the key to the Rockets' scoring. Don’t expect this to change as the season rolls along. Harden is already the Rockets’ star player, ranked fifth in the league in scoring with 25.8 points per game.
When his shot is off, he finds other ways to get points on the board. In the game yesterday against Charlotte, Harden was a measly 5-of-20 from the floor, but he used his drive and athletic ability to get to the foul line. He went 19-of-21 from the line and was the top Rockets scorer once again.
Harden has led the team in scoring 22 of the past 23 games, per USA Today.
Harden will continue to get his shots, and even when they’re not falling, we have seen that he is capable of carrying the load through other means.
Snapping the losing streak, Harden remarked after the game that he'd like to see this win allow the team to get its swagger back.
He hasn’t been hitting any of his three-point attempts as of late, shooting a terrible .167 from three-point range over the last five games. After a rough four-game road trip with just a .280 field-goal percentage, Harden will look to get things back on track.
In order to do so, he has to let Lin run the offense and be more selective with his shots, but Harden can't stop shooting.
While Harden may want to limit his threes, he has to keep shooting because this team will only go as far as Harden takes them.
Role Players Need to Show Their Value
Behind Lin and Harden, many of the Rockets players are operating under the radar. This team is filled with role players, Parsons and Asik included. These role players have to get the job done down the stretch.
Power forwards Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris have struggled over the recent seven-game skid, causing coach Kevin McHale to go with the hot hand any given night.
Morris totaled 21 points yesterday and added eight rebounds in 33 minutes, which should boost his confidence after three games with limited minutes and poor performances.
Patterson has played well overall, starting 25 of the 34 games he’s appeared in. He missed seven games in mid-December due to a bruised right foot, but he has proved to be a valuable asset for this team. He has 40 assists and 157 rebounds while shooting .491 from the field this season.
If these guys can't turn it around quick, don't be surprised to see a trade in Houston. Rumors have been popping up that Zach Randolph is linked to Houston, which would give the Rockets a veteran presence in their young lineup.
It will be interesting to see whether the Rockets look to improve their team at the deadline or run with what they have.
Carlos Delfino is one of the better Rockets bench players. He has scored in double figures five of the last six games, due in part to his hot hand beyond the arc. Delfino is heating up and getting healthy at the right time (he missed seven games in November and two at the end of December), and he is primed to have a solid second half.
If they get contributions from a wide variety of the roster, Houston will set themselves up for a nice playoff run. Once the Rockets get back on track, everything will start clicking. We've seen how dangerous this team can be.
They are a very young team and could be a couple years away from a serious championship run, but they need their role players to do their jobs and must utilize Lin’s ability to run the point in order to spark a playoff push.