With the NBA playoffs right around the corner, the Houston Rockets are lined up to be anywhere from the No. 6 to the No. 8 seed. Despite the lower seeding, this team has the makeup and potential to make a deep playoff run.
Sitting at 43-33, this was a team that came into the season with minimal expectations. The duo of Jeremy Lin and James Harden has given Houston some excitement surrounding basketball.
With a whole new look from last season, this team's immediate success is an anomaly. The young group learned how to play together and is emerging as one of the more dangerous teams in the Western Conference.
The Rockets have struggled, though, against playoff-caliber teams over the course of the season. They've won just 12 games against potential Western Conference playoff teams, including the Utah Jazz.
However, every team has its strengths and every team has its weaknesses. There are ways to beat the top-seeded teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Denver, and the Rockets have the pieces to make that happen.
Their greatest strength is scoring. Houston is leading the NBA in points per game, at 106.1. That’s in large part due to their ability to connect from long range:
Here you can see how many offensive weapons the Rockets possess. Not only can they hit the shot, they create open looks by spreading the ball. Rather than take contested, low-percentage shots, they set up the open man with the extra pass.
In the early parts of the season when they were still trying to get their chemistry down, there was a lot of isolation, a lot of standing around and not much penetration.
In the above clip, from when the Rockets tied the NBA record for most three-pointers in a game, you can see the number of times a player would drive the lane, make the defense converge, and then dish out to the open man.
When that happens, they are getting high-quality shots and are difficult for any team to contain.
Those high-quality shots don't just come from beyond the arc, though that's what it may seem like. The Rockets take 28.7 long range shots per game, the most in the NBA.
With the ability of the backcourt to get to the basket, there are plays at the rim to highlight the all-around scoring effort.
The Rockets don't take many two-point shots, yet as a team are shooting a steady 46.1 percent from the field this season. The chart above shows the shot selections for the team this season, per Vorped.com.
Further adding to their spoiler potential, this a run-and-gun style team. Led by Harden, they are young, quick and agile, bringing a transition game that can leave the most talented teams left watching this group run through them.
Showing it all season, the Rockets have become a fast-break team, spreading the floor and out-hustling their every opponent. With the hustle, they seemingly always have an open man when bringing the ball up court.
Whether it takes one, two, or even three passes to get to the open man, Houston's hustle has led to the second-most fast break points per game in the NBA, 18.4.
The fast break is seen from many different plays. A steal, a rebound or a block will force the Rockets into transition.
This demonstrates the Rockets' speed and ball sharing at its finest. Omer Asik, leading the team in rebounds with 11.6 per game, starts the transition with a quick pass to Lin under the basket. You can see Chandler Parsons take off after they have secured the ball, and he quickly gets behind the defense for a half-court alley-oop pass from Lin.
This is a small sample of the transition style offense, and this is a play that doesn't feature The Bearded One.
Harden is the leading figure in transition with his ability to get to the rim, becoming the Rockets most valuable player. He explodes through the lane and has an uncanny ability to finish.
He has opened some eyes with his 26 points per game, 5.9 assists per game, and healthy 23.5 player efficiency rating. A good portion of those statistics come from his play in transition.
Harden spoke to Beckley Mason of ESPN.com on the effectiveness of coach Kevin McHale's system,
In order for us to have a chance in any game, we can't slow the ball up and try to play half court. We have to impose our will and do what we do.
There is always the potential for Harden to get extremely hot from the field. He has been in the playoffs before and he knows what it’s like to perform in pressure situations. Take this video for example:
Here, you see everything he now brings to the table for the Rockets. He can hit the three, which I’ve already pointed out. He can also convert acrobatic-type shots from around the basket and take control of the game.
At the 52-second mark, Harden uses a crossover to get past the Mavericks’ Delonte West for an old-fashioned three point play. His explosiveness and penetration was on display throughout the 2012 playoffs.
As the go-to scorer on this team, we can expect to see the same type of Harden in this year's playoffs. He turns ordinary plays into something extraordinary, and the extra attention of the defense will open up his teammates for easy buckets.
Speaking of defense, if Harden is the most valuable player on the Rockets, Asik is the most important. The 7'0" Turkish center has come into his own in Houston.
With 32 double-doubles on the season, Asik is playing his best basketball as of late. In the past month, he is shooting 57.2 percent from the field (mostly dunks and point-blank shots) and is averaging 10.2 points per game during that stretch.
His overall value can be seen in this next clip.
This shows his multi-faceted ability to make an impact. Starting with a blocked shot, Asik runs the court, sets up a beautifully run pick-and-roll with Lin and finishes uncontested for an easy two points.
He does everything you could ask of a big man in one play. His talent and importance is hidden behind that of Harden, Lin and Parsons, but there is no player more vital to this year's team than Asik.
When he gets his share of shots, the Rockets win games. In games where Asik scores in double figures, the Rockets are 24-14 this season (5-1 in the past month). If they can get him going offensively as the playoffs approach, look for an early-round upset and subsequently, a deep playoff run.
For the Rockets, there's nothing to lose. Coming into this season, they were overlooked when it came to the playoffs and have far-and-away exceeded everyone's expectations.
The chemistry is there. This is a group that plays together. There are no selfish players.
The star-status players have been huge all season, and the role players are doing their share of the work on both ends of the court. The Rockets are ninth in the league in rebounding, averaging 44.3 rebounds as a team per game, and fifth in assists, averaging 23.2 per game.
The way this team is aligned, they are extremely efficient and have all bought into McHale's style, making this season all the more impressive.
When push comes to shove, this group of players has what it takes to get the job done. If there's a weakness, it's their defense, giving up a whopping 102.3 points per game to their opponents.
Still a +3.7 differential, but defense wins championships. Being capable of locking down the opponents' No. 1 scoring threat is huge. Houston is currently slated to take on Oklahoma City, that means frustrating Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
A tough task, though scoring 106 points per game in the playoffs is usually enough to see success. However, the defense has to be there for those points to matter.
Winners of four in a row and seven of their last nine, the Rockets have a friendly final six games and could, in all likelihood, take a 10 game winning streak into the playoffs. It's not unrealistic to think this team has a legitimate shot to come out of the Western Conference.
Come playoff time, expect to be impressed by the high-scoring Houston Rockets.
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