The Houston Rockets' high-octane offense has done a lot for them—it’s the key ingredient to the best start of a season that they’ve had in several years. It’s the very core of their team philosophy.
But will it also be their undoing?
If it is, then Thursday night’s 104-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder will have been a presage. In the game, the Rockets made history by scoring 73 points in the first half but just 19 in the second half. It was the largest half-to-half scoring discrepancy a team has ever displayed in a game, per ESPN.
"I've never seen anything like that," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, according to CBS Sports.
What this seemingly freak occurrence tells us is that the Houston offense—despite always being near the top of the rankings in points per game—is problematic.
Once the Thunder decided to put the clamps on in the second half, the open three-pointers and opportunities near the rim started to disappear for the Rockets, and they lacked the nuanced playbook necessary to reliably find more in-between spaces. They couldn’t penetrate the Thunder’s outstanding half-court strings.
A similar story played out in the team’s 114-81 loss to the Indiana Pacers earlier in the season. In that matchup, the Rockets also didn't display the offensive complexity necessary to break through Indiana's disciplined defense.
But this should only be part of a larger addressing of the team’s style. The Rockets need more organization on the whole.
When the Rockets fail to achieve one of their preferred outcomes of a shot in the paint or from behind the arc—ideally on the fast break—what do they have to fall back on?
A certain amount of fool’s gold lies in Houston’s modality of choice. With Harden and Jeremy Lin’s speed and creativity in the open court and the slew of shooters, the Rockets are able to feast on much of the Western Conference with their carnivorous blitz.
But it’s no formula for beating their toughest peers.
Houston's greatest advantage over its conference rivals is Howard. He is easily the best center in the West, and his impact will only truly be felt once his team learns how to use his presence on the post and elbow.
The threat of him should be a more calculated truth to the Rockets’ ball men, who will start to see extra avenues open up once they develop a more consistent sense of their big man’s role. The double-teams that he regularly demands should not be going wasted.
In order for this to happen for Howard, a system that feeds on something aside from firepower and chaos needs to be installed.
The Rockets have gotten by so far on sheer talent, but their latest loss to the Thunder should be taken as a lesson about how low the ceiling is on their current system.
It’s time to adapt.