Even James Harden knows the Rockets have a lot to learn come playoff time.
The Rockets have learned a lot on the fly this season. For the NBA's youngest team (average age of 23.9 years old) to win 39 games and even be in contention for a playoff position this late in the season is astounding. For that, I give them credit.
There's plenty to be worried about come playoff time, though, and understandably so. With great teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder representing road blocks between the Rockets and the NBA Finals, they'll have to click on all cylinders to advance.
Preparation begins now. Every game up until now was for racking up wins. Now, it's about more. Obviously, wins are still important, but tuning up for the playoffs and establishing a playoff rotation worthy of competing against top teams is key.
The Rockets can use their remaining 11 regular-season games to figure some things out.
The Rockets get the best of both worlds during their remaining 11 games. Not only do they get a chance to sort some things out, they also get to rack up some wins against lesser teams and improve their seeding in the Western Conference.
Well, they should be able to rack up some wins.
If we go by the extremely rudimentary method of awarding the Rockets with a win for each game they play an opponent with a worse record (and a loss for the opposite scenario), then Houston should finish out its final games with a record of 7-4.
Those losses would be coming to the Memphis Grizzlies (twice), Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, with wins against the Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings (twice) and Phoenix Suns (twice).
While beating up on these teams won't prove their playoff worth, the Rockets can learn a lot about themselves from winning these games. If they go into the playoffs losing one or two (or worse, more) of these contests, then there's a good chance their confidence will slip to an unsafe point.
The Rockets can learn if they have what it takes to remain confident through the first round of the playoffs if they can win the games they have to win.
Either Chandler Parsons or Jeremy Lin will have to step up when called upon.
The Rockets have the best statistical offense in the NBA, checking in at 106.4 points each night. The biggest contributor there is none other than Harden, who is dropping 26.3 per game. After him, there's not really a clear secondary option.
Omer Asik is more of a safety net down low, Donatas Motiejunas is nothing special offensively and Thomas Robinson is still too raw offensively to be relied upon. This leaves Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, two guys who have been wildly inconsistent offensively this season.
Parsons is scoring 15.2 points per game and shooting over 47 percent from the floor, but he's gone through stretches this season where he's essentially been a non-factor. Lin has been even less consistent, shooting under 45 percent from the floor.
One of these guys will need to step up if Harden is having an off night shooting the ball. The Rockets will have immense difficulties winning if Harden isn't at his best, so having a legitimate No. 2 scoring option is key.
At this point, all signs point to that guy being Parsons. Despite his inconsistencies, he has had significantly fewer bumps in the road than Lin and boasts better overall offensive potential. Lin could very well surprise us, though, so we shouldn't rule him out entirely.
By the time mid-April rolls around, one of these guys will have to prove himself.
Francisco Garcia should not see the floor in the playoffs.
Over the course of the past five games, 12 different Rockets have gotten playing time. In the playoffs, that simply will not fly.
You have to have your best players on the court at all times during the playoffs—period. Any minutes, however minimal, played by Francisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks could be the difference between a two-point loss and a two-point win.
With that being the case, head coach Kevin McHale should look to tighten his rotation to around eight or nine guys come mid-April.
After the starting five, McHale should look to use Patrick Beverley (PG), Carlos Delfino (SF), Thomas Robinson (PF) and Greg Smith (C). Beverley can also play shooting guard when Harden sits, or Lin can easily slide over for a few minutes. If McHale is comfortable using James Anderson in that situation instead, then an argument can be made for him as well.
But that's it.
These remaining 11 games should be used to toy with playoff rotations. When and how often players are subbed in and out is an important (and often overlooked) part of NBA playoff basketball. McHale needs to learn during this stretch who's ready to play and who isn't, as well as which guys give him the best shot at winning.
Just a note for you, Coach—you should go with the aforementioned rotation.
Greg Smith has been an inconsistent piece off the bench in 2012-13, but he may be starting to get hot again—and just in time.
In the five games prior to the March 27 game against the Indiana Pacers, Smith was shooting 63.9 percent from the floor, scoring 6.0 points and grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game. His game against the Pacers blew those averages out of the water.
Smith played over 32 minutes, scored 18 points and pulled down 19 rebounds—seven of which were offensive boards. While unfair to expect those numbers from him every game, it sure would be nice if Smith could keep this hot stretch going through the playoffs.
Big men are rarely relied upon to play more than 30 or so minutes per game. Asik has averaged just that (30.1) this season. Having a competent replacement off the bench for the remaining time is invaluable. If Smith can come into playoff games and perform at this level, there should be no production lost.
Should Smith go back to another cold streak, however, the Rockets could potentially struggle offensively when Asik takes a breather.
Smith's play needs to be analyzed in the next 11 games. If he keeps playing like this and proves himself to be a reliable option, he'll see quality minutes in the first round.
I've already mentioned that Houston is the youngest team in the NBA—many, many people have probably mentioned it at this point in the season.
What many haven't brought up in conversation is the fact that the team's average service time in the league is but 1.7 seasons. But wait, there's more (via HoopsWorld.com):
Their three big offseason acquisitions – James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik – had started a combined 34 games entering this season. Four of their five starters have never started a playoff game.
Generally, inexperience and the playoff atmosphere don't mix particularly well. If it's any consolation, Harden was a key member of the Oklahoma City Thunder's NBA Finals run in 2011-12. The Thunder were also a very young team, but not at the same level as Houston.
This 11-game stretch will prove whether or not the Rockets are ready to handle the pressures of the playoffs. With the first round looming ever closer, the pressure will quickly begin to rise and force it's hand on the young team.
The Rockets can learn a lot about themselves as a team if they can overcome the pressures that come during the home stretch of the regular season. The playoffs, though, will be an entirely different story.
You know what they say, "If you can't stand the heat, get off the basketball court"—well, at least I say that.