Who Should Be Houston Rockets' Clutch 5 in NBA Playoffs?
The best strategy for the Houston Rockets entering the NBA Playoffs would be to utilize a smaller lineup during the crucial moments of the game. It would give the team a scoring advantage that would make up for the unit's lack of size.
The Rockets are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference with nine games left to play. If the season ended today, they would be paired against the Oklahoma City Thunder in a matchup that would see Houston guard James Harden square off against his former team.
The Thunder are currently half a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot. A seven-game series between Houston and Oklahoma City would not only be entertaining for the Harden factor, but because it would pit the two top-scoring teams in the league against each other.
The Rockets and Thunder are tied for the league lead in points scored per game, averaging 106 points a night. After dealing away forwards Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris earlier in the season, Houston has opted for a more offensive-minded approach with Carlos Delfino seeing increased playing time.
The team has a couple intriguing big men in rookies Thomas Robinson and Donatas Motiejunas. Robinson is a high-energy guy who failed to produce in his first NBA stop in Sacramento. As for D-Mo, he's an athletic big man with the potential to be a force on both ends of the court.
The presence of neither rookie has been enough to improve Houston's defense, which is 28th in the NBA in points allowed. That's why its best chance at success in the postseason is to continue to utilize its best scorers on the floor at the same time.
This is the lineup that the Houston Rockets should incorporate down the stretch during the playoffs.
Point Guard: Jeremy Lin
The Houston Rockets gave Jeremy Lin $25 million over the next three years to be their franchise point guard. For the most part, he's lived up to his end of the bargain. His numbers this season are comparable to last year, when he became a worldwide breakout sensation with the New York Knicks.
He's stepped up his three-point percentage from last year, going from 32 percent to 34 percent. He's also cut down on his turnovers, averaging 2.9 per game after turning it over 3.6 times a night with the Knicks. Lin also has a knack for getting others involved with an average of six assists per game the last two seasons.
Lin's chief opposition for minutes is Patrick Beverley, a rookie who has been logging nearly 17 minutes per game this season. Beverley lacks the experience and overall skill to be relied upon in pressure situations, however.
Houston's other option is diminutive scoring guard Aaron Brooks. Brooks' offensive abilities are his main strength. In 2009-10, he scored 19.6 points per night in what was his last season as a starter (oddly enough, it was with the Rockets).
However, Brooks is a one-trick pony. Beyond scoring, he doesn't bring much else to the table. He isn't as good as Lin defensively. He doesn't distribute the ball like Lin does, and he's a full three inches shorter than the Harvard alum.
Jeremy Lin may not be an elite point guard just yet, but he's an adequate starter. He's dangerous enough as a scorer that defenses have to account for him, and he's always a threat to make a play when he has the ball in his hands.
Lin's ability as a facilitator and occasional scorer makes him versatile enough to be the Rockets' best point guard during crunch time.
Shooting Guard: James Harden
This pick is a no-brainer. James Harden has stepped up from Oklahoma City's sixth man to Houston's best player in his first season with the Rockets. The team stole Harden from the Thunder just before the start of the season and he rewarded them by scoring nearly 26 points per night.
Harden has become a particularly efficient scorer in close games. According to NBA.com, Harden has scored 113 points this season in the last five minutes of games that his team is ahead or behind by five points. That's good enough for seventh-best in the NBA.
The guard also has a simple rating of plus-7.9, according to 82games.com (Note: "Simple ratings" are 82games.com's method of measuring worth by comparing a player's stats to their counterpart's when he is on the court). That rating is 11th-best in the league, ahead of guys like Los Angeles' Blake Griffin and former Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook.
The Arizona State product is shooting 37 percent from behind the arc and 44 percent from the field. The team utilizes him in a number of ways, whether it be running plays for him off the ball or having him bring it up court.
He is the team's most dangerous weapon and is the guy you want with the ball in his hands in the closing minutes of the game.
Forward: Chandler Parsons
Chandler Parsons has emerged in his second season as one of the game's most underrated players. He boosted his scoring average from 9.5 points per game last year to dropping 15.3 a night this season.
At 6'9", Parsons can fluctuate between either forward position in this smaller lineup. He's an effective scorer inside, converting 66 percent of his attempts around the rim and 40 percent of shots taken within three-to-nine feet (stats courtesy of HoopData.com).
He's also a 38-percent shooter from the three-point line. He grabs around five rebounds per game, which makes him passable on the glass. He doesn't block a ton of shots or come up with many steals, but he's managed to hold opponents to just over 50 percent in effective field-goal percentage allowed (stat courtesy of 82games.com).
In just two seasons, Parsons has developed into the Rockets' second-best player. His versatility on offense is a large part of the reason Houston can get away with playing small ball. He doesn't offer the rebounding advantage of utilizing a traditional power forward, but he makes up for it with his scoring.
Forward: Carlos Delfino
This was the only spot that was up for debate. The case can be made that Houston should move Chandler Parsons to small forward and opt for another big body like Donatas Motiejunas or Thomas Robinson at power forward. The team could even use Greg Smith or rookie Terrence Jones at the other forward spot alongside Parsons.
The problem with that concept is two-fold. First, neither Robinson or Motiejunas have been productive enough to be worthy of crunch-time minutes.
Robinson was so unproductive with the Kings that Sacramento gave up on him midway into his rookie season. In 67 games, the former Kansas Jayhawk is averaging 4.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Those aren't exactly the numbers one would expect from the No. 5 overall pick.
As for D-Mo, he has a ton of potential, but he's still a bit raw. He has the size, strength, shooting touch and quick feet to be a future double-double machine. However, he's logging just over 12 minutes a game this season. He's really not an option until Houston cleans up the logjam it has at power forward.
The other issue is having someone like Motiejunas on the floor instead of Delfino gives the team a disadvantage in the free-throw department. D-Mo's a 58-percent free-throw shooter. Starting center Omer Asik is a 55-percent free-throw shooter.
Do you really want those two on the floor together in a close game? Are those the guys you want at the charity stripe in a two-point game?
Delfino, meanwhile, is shooting 85 percent from the line this season. He's also a 37-percent shooter from behind the arc. Pairing him with Parsons may put the Rockets at a disadvantage on the glass, but it also makes them better on offense.
The Rockets aren't going to win games by getting stops, holding opponents to low-scoring nights and dominating the boards. They will win by being the basketball manifestation of "The Greatest Show On Turf." They are going to win by turning games into shootouts instead of defensive struggles.
The decision to go with Delfino instead of a bigger forward makes the team quicker and more dangerous offensively. That's going to be the key in the first round with the possibility of facing two solid defensive teams in either Oklahoma City or San Antonio looming.
Center: Omer Asik
One of the biggest surprises of this season has been Omer Asik going from a lightly used backup center in Chicago to being a legit starting center in his first season in Houston. After swinging and missing on deals for Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard over the summer, Asik has become the big man that the Rockets have been searching for.
Asik has put up some impressive numbers this season. He's scoring 10.4 points and grabbing 11.6 rebounds a night (second behind Dwight Howard for the rebounding title). He's 15th in the NBA in double-doubles with 32, trailing notable big men such as Al Jefferson and Tim Duncan by one. He's one of nine big men averaging a double-double this season.
Asik is not without his limitations. He doesn't have the softest of hands, which makes things difficult when getting the ball to him in transition. He doesn't offer much on the offensive end outside of the paint (Asik has taken just 35 shots away from the rim this season), and he doesn't have ideal speed for a lineup this small.
However, Asik is a monster on the glass, and he represents the Rockets' best chance at second-chance opportunities. His presence in the paint keeps possessions alive, and that's a huge boost for an offense with this many options.
The Turkish seven-footer can also get things done on the defense end, averaging a little over a block per game. He isn't an upper-echelon center, but he's good enough to give the West's best bigs fits. He's a raw big man who has managed to carve his niche quicker than many could have anticipated.
In close games, it pays to have a guy who can crash the boards and make opponents think twice about entering the paint. Lucky for Houston, Asik is that kind of guy.