Wednesday night's 111-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs was Houston's second road win against the defending Western Conference champs in less than a month. The Rockets beat San Antonio 112-106 on November 30 and have already swept the road portion of the season series.
The December 25 win was a near mirror image of that November 30 win. In both games, Houston built a comfortable first-half lead but allowed San Antonio to mount a comeback, only to pull away from the Spurs late. In both games, Houston guard James Harden buried the Spurs with 16 points in the fourth quarter.
On Wednesday, Harden scored 16 of his 28 points in the final 12 minutes, shooting 6-of-7 from the field and swishing both of his three-point attempts.
But if Harden and the Rockets are counting on carrying the momentum from this statement into their next game, they could be sadly mistaken. Houston hasn't parlayed that big November 30 win into long-term success, going just 6-6 so far in the month of December.
A few of those losses (at Portland, at Indiana) were excusable, while others (at Utah, at Sacramento) were not. But the net result is the same—even after Wednesday's win, the 19-11 Rockets are as close to 10th as first in the brutal Western Conference. Yes, the Rockets have had injuries (Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons), but excuses won't get you very far in this year's West.
Don't Let Howard's Renaissance Go to Waste
Houston center Dwight Howard continued his string of dominant play on Wednesday with 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 20 rebounds. He was limited a bit by foul trouble in the fourth—scoring zero points on zero shots in six minutes of play—but he made his presence felt on the defensive end, blocking one shot and altering several others.
Houston looked particularly frisky on defense in the fourth—perhaps too frisky, as the Spurs shot only 41.2 percent but took 11 free throws.
Most importantly, Howard didn't attempt a free throw in the fourth. There was no "hack-a-Dwight," even when the game was within reach. Perhaps opponents are wary of Howard's improvement from the line—he's shooting 60.2 percent in December.
In fact, Howard has improved in nearly every area in the past few weeks. His November-December splits are stark.
In the long run, that's great news for Houston. Howard is not only the most athletically gifted Rocket; he is arguably the most athletically gifted player in the league outside of LeBron James.
But the Rockets have not been able to take advantage of Howard's dominance in December, and it has cost them in the conference standings.
The Difference: Threes
Houston destroyed the Spurs from behind the arc on Wednesday, hitting 12 of its 24 attempts. The Rockets used that dominance from downtown to make up for a subpar night at the charity stripe (9-of-18).
But the Rockets have been making fewer of their threes in December, and it is probably the biggest reason they have suffered in the standings. Before Wednesday's outburst, Houston was shooting just 30.5 percent from three in the month, well below the 38.2 percent overall mark held in November.
The Rockets came into Wednesday ranked first overall in both three-point attempts and free-throw attempts. But it's the three-point numbers and not the free-throw numbers that correlate more directly to Houston losses, according to this chart:
In their losses, the Rockets attempt more threes but make nearly two fewer attempts per game, due to a 9.2 percent drop in three-point shooting percentage. The free-throw numbers are down, but not by as much.
In December, the Rockets have struggled in both phases, making fewer threes and free throws. They have been a dramatically different team, struggling both from the perimeter and from the paint. If the Rockets want to capture November's magic, they will have to continue what they did Wednesday night: making some shots from deep.
Half of Houston's threes came in the first quarter, when the Rockets jumped out to a 40-25 lead. They showed the brutally efficient potential of their offense, as demonstrated by this ESPN Stats shot chart:
Harden didn't attempt a single three in that quarter, scoring only two points, but he was instrumental in setting the tone for Houston's success. Harden did not look for his shot early, preferring instead to pass to open teammates. He had three of his six assists in the first quarter.
Via NBA.com's Tim Price, Harden said his unselfish first quarter was the result of a premeditated game plan: "Coming into the game I wanted to keep (teammates) involved and keep them going and try to get mine at the end. It played out well."
Moving forward, the Rockets would do well to repeat this formula. Harden is one of the game's great late-game finishers, with the ability to slash to the basket and draw fouls on just about anyone. But he is not a knockdown shooter from deep, shooting just 32 percent from three.
The Rockets need their shooters to hit threes to be effective. Harden should look to pass more early in games. If the shots aren't falling, he can drive to the basket. Howard should focus more on the defensive end later in the game.
The pieces should fit in Houston. The Rockets have far too much talent to play .500 ball for nearly one month. If the proper adjustments are made, the Rockets can play up to their potential in January.