What the Young Houston Rockets Can Learn from Growing Pains in NBA Playoffs
The Houston Rockets are looking at a bright future. A No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the Rockets managed to make the playoffs as the youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of 24.9 years old.
A team that has seen winning records the past seven years, Houston has failed to reach the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, finishing with the best record in the lottery three consecutive years.
Now, with the additions of James Harden and Jeremy Lin, the Rockets have solidified their backcourt in an effort to reshape the identity of the team. They have become a fast-paced, dynamic shooting club that finished the regular season behind only the Denver Nuggets for most points per game.
Dealt a difficult hand in a series against Oklahoma City, the Rockets started sluggish and saw furious comeback attempts fall short in consecutive games. Down 3-2 in the series, Houston is relying on its fast-paced offense to out hustle the Thunder.
You can’t expect to flip a switch and automatically contend for an NBA title. There are many hurdles to climb and many lessons to learn, though the Rockets are clearly on the right track.
Having just one player currently on the roster from last year’s team (Chandler Parsons), coupled with the fact they are the youngest team in the NBA, we have seen some obvious growing pains.
Learning from these will only make the Rockets stronger in the future.
Here’s what the Rockets can learn from their growing pains.
The Importance of Ball Control
If you don’t control the ball, you won’t win in the playoffs. The Rockets have turned the ball over an average of 16 times a game, including 22 in the Game 4 win.
Each possession is more important than the next and controlling the ball is the key to success.
With scorers up and down the lineup, Houston has been able to stay in games, but have looked sloppy with ball-handling. The most turnover prone player is Harden, who controls the ball on the majority of possessions.
An isolation-type player, Harden is struggling with the on-ball defense of the Thunder. Other teams will exploit that weakness and work to shut down Harden on the ball. He turned the ball over a franchise postseason record 10 times in Game 4.
Point guard Patrick Beverley needs to be the facilitator and find the open man. Beverley simply doesn’t turn the ball over. He is averaging just one turnover per game in the series, and averaged just 1.1 in the regular season.
While this is just a short-term solution, as they are still very much in the series, controlling the ball is the most crucial part of the game. Giving the Thunder offense extra possessions won’t have a positive result.
If they can knock the turnovers down to around 10 per game, the Rockets have a great chance to take the series. Learning from their mistakes and not forcing passes or allowing themselves to be trapped at mid-court will bode well for any success they may have.
For the Rockets, the biggest thing is gaining confidence. We saw a flustered Rockets team in Game 1, a 29-point loss where they shot a collective 36.3 percent from the floor.
There has been a steady improvement, which has raised the confidence level of the team going forward. After falling short in Game 2, it looked like we were going to see another blowout in Game 3 as the Thunder broke out to a 20-point first quarter lead.
The Rockets showed resiliency and came all the way back to control the lead with under a minute remaining. Kevin Durant connected on a long-range jumper that bounced around the rim before falling. It didn’t go the Rockets way, but they were now confident they could compete for 48 minutes with this team.
The next two games we saw a different Rockets team, playing with the swagger they had in the regular season. The early playoff jitters were gone, the disappointing Lin was out with injury, and the clutch shooting of Parsons lifted the team.
Now with a few playoff victories under their belt, the Rockets confidence is sky-high. This year, there is no pressure. They weren’t supposed to be in the position that they are.
With the potential of this group, the pressure will soon be on Houston in the postseason.
Patrick Beverley told Jason Friedman of Rockets.com after the Game 4 win,
It just shows that we can do it. We just wanted to show some character out here and we did that the last three games and we just want to carry that over to the next game.
Even if they don’t advance past this round, the confidence they’ve been building over these five games will be a stepping stone for the future of this club.
We hear it all the time, “defense wins championships.” The argument can be made that efficient, high-percentage shooting wins championships as well, which would work in Houston’s favor.
The Rockets score in bunches, but they surrender too many points on defense, cancelling out the offensive production. Playoff games are played with much more intensity and Houston has to learn to get in position on defense.
Omer Asik has done a fine job all season, forcing bad shots and smothering his opposition. However, the perimeter defense needs to improve, and the amount of open space needs to decrease.
The open space has enabled Kevin Durant to shoot close to 50 percent from the field.
Come playoffs, the intensity and energy has to be the same for 48 minutes, and you’d be surprised how getting a hand up on defense would affect opponents’ scoring. The shooting percentage goes down and the number of open looks decreases, meaning the Rockets will have an edge.
You can’t change a defense in a few games, but the learning curve for this team is high. The defense needs to step up when playing in meaningful games.
Being able to force turnovers, pressure the ball and use quickness to defend the perimeter, the Rockets can beat anybody. They just have to commit as a team.
The offense, albeit a little sporadic, will always be there. It’s the defense that the Rockets need to groom and perfect.
It's been a work in progress all season, but you have to play your best all-around basketball in the playoffs, something the Rockets are quickly learning.
Keep Composure for the Full 48 Minutes
The youth and inexperience of the Rockets was revealed in the Game 1 blowout. It was the first playoff game for many on the roster, and the composure was missing from the opening tip.
They seemed tentative at times, going through the motions and hoping for a good result. Composure comes with experience. After the Game 1 loss, Harden said:
We didn't have a rhythm as a team. I felt like it was basically one on five every time. Believe it or not, I think this was good for us. Losing like this was definitely good for us. Now we know how to play.
There were too many players trying to be the hero. There was no calmness, and the shots were rushed.
Lesson learned: Just play basketball. In the last four games, the energy and composure was there, but not for the full game. Losing your composure will lead to long runs, and in the playoffs, those deficits are hard to make up.
After a heartbreaking Game 3 loss, coach Kevin McHale said (via Jason Friedman of Rockets.com), “It seemed like we were a little unnerved and then we got our bearing straight.”
It’s going to take a few playoff series before we can see how the Rockets hold their composure for an entire series, but for now, they have to take it 48 minutes at a time.
It’s difficult for an inexperienced team to stay composed for the length of the game. The frustrations eat away at you in important games, and when running into trouble, the Rockets seem to lose sight of the game and fire too many ill-advised three-point shots.
The team lives and dies by the three, so staying collected as a group is crucial. If they want to learn how to do that, all they have to do is watch the Thunder, who play poised and collected every game. Again, it all comes with experience.
This series will prove to be invaluable.
There were low expectations for the Rockets coming into this season. General manager Daryl Morey has been restructuring the lineup for much of the past four seasons, trying to field a winner.
With a solid core group of players, this series will be an invaluable experience. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons are playing in the first playoff series of their careers, though Lin has missed the last two games with a bruised right chest muscle.
In the three games Lin has played, he’s been virtually non-existent with a total of 13 points and 8 assists. Parsons, on the other hand, has not succumbed to the pressure. The 24-year-old second-year player has been impressive, averaging 16.8 points per game and 6.8 rebounds.
James Harden, who was acquired just prior to the start of the season, has emerged as an All-Star and the No. 1 scoring threat on the team. While he has experience playing in the playoffs, Harden is playing a different role for Houston. A bench player’s mindset doesn’t differ much from a starter’s, but the fact Harden has become the go-to scorer for this team puts added pressure on his shoulders.
His shooting hasn’t been great, though he did have an outstanding Game 5. Shooting just 40.9 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from beyond the arc, Harden is experiencing some growing pains himself.
The entire roster needs this series to familiarize themselves with a playoff atmosphere and learn from it. With the direction this team is headed, playoffs will be all to familiar in a few years, and you can only get better with experience.
Showing tremendous growth already, Houston has to savor this moment and look back on it as a motivating factor in the coming years.
If the Rockets fail to make it out of the first round, a sour taste will be left in their mouths. They let close games slip away and consequently, are on the verge of elimination.
Learning from your mistakes is priority No. 1, but using your mistakes as motivation for the future can go a long way.
You could compare this Rockets team to the Thunder. Three years ago was the first time they Oklahoma City reached the playoffs. That team lost in the first round. The next year, 2010-11, Kevin Durant led his team to the Western Conference Finals, where they were bested by the eventual NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. Then last season, they reached the NBA Finals, only to lose to the Miami Heat.
The Rockets have had their taste of the postseason. It’s a long way from being over, but the hunger will linger until next season if they are, in fact, eliminated.
While Harden made an impact in each of those appearances for the Thunder, he may be on a similar path with Houston. The Rockets will keep getting better, and the motivation level will be extremely high as the years go on.
Learning from these lessons will undoubtedly make Houston a better team and merge them into contention.
For now, Houston will enjoy its ride and hope it faces another team this season.