The Houston Rockets looked like world-beaters in sprinting past the visiting Portland Trail Blazers on Monday, but we've seen far too much inconsistency from James Harden and co. to put full faith in their impressive 126-113 victory.
Remember, this is a Rockets team just days removed from a stunning second-half collapse against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In that Jan. 16 contest, Houston followed up a blistering 73-point first half with just 19 points after the break.
What the Rockets did against the Blazers was a solid example of what they're capable of when firing on all cylinders. The trick, though, has been getting the engine to run when the opponent and style of play aren't tailor-made for Houston to exploit.
And rest assured, the Blazers' combination of pace and defensive ineptitude made for ideal conditions:
Safe to say that -- much like the 2009 season -- the Rockets might be the worst possible playoff matchup for the #Blazers.— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) January 21, 2014
For a Houston team with serious designs on chasing a title, figuring out how to play well against everyone—not just the Blazers—is going to be critical.
So, how do the Rockets do it?
Buckle Down Against the Elite
Don't read this as a shot against Portland. Nobody can take away the Blazers' sterling record, which, by the way, still leaves them a full four games ahead of the Rockets in the standings.
But the Blazers are perfectly comfortable in shootouts, and that makes them especially vulnerable to the Rockets. Houston has never had a problem succeeding in run-and-gun affairs; the Rockets are practically the pioneers of the three-heavy, up-and-down attack in the post-"Seven Seconds or Less" NBA.
Houston, though, isn't so effective when the pace slows down and half-court offense becomes necessary.
In the past month alone, the Rockets lost a 114-81 decision to the Indiana Pacers and have struggled mightily to score in a pair of losses against the Thunder. The aforementioned Jan. 16 defeat at the hands of OKC is particularly emblematic of the problems that arise for Houston when it has to score against a defense that digs in and commits.
The key for the Rockets will be embracing more efficient, disciplined offense.
Take that 114-81 loss to the Pacers as an example. In that embarrassing defeat, Houston amassed just 10 assists as a team, which is what can happen when transition opportunities dry up and the drive-and-pitch game fails against a rigidly principled stay-at-home defense.
Houston needed to employ a heavier dose of pick-and-roll sets in that game, something that has always been difficult with Dwight Howard around. D12 isn't a fan of the NBA's most popular mode of attack, which is doubly frustrating because he's so good as a roller.
Instead of forcing help by sending Howard on dives to the middle, Houston relied on isolation sets and fired up a number of contested shots in that game against Indiana. James Harden kept trying to prove himself against Paul George, a predictable continuation of his penchant for attacking the league's best perimeter defenders in isolation.
The Beard is proud, and he always tries to attack the best opponents, especially late in games.
Houston would have been better served in that game—and against good defenses in general—by a more balanced, fluid half-court approach. Harden can't be a ball-stopper, and Howard must embrace the pick-and-roll if the Rockets are to have optimal success in slower games.
To be fair, Houston is dealing with a complicated balancing act. It doesn't (and shouldn't) want to get away from what makes it so dangerous against most opponents: pace and space. The Rockets are capable of getting into devastating grooves when they're running free on offense.
But they also need a secondary mode of offensive attack. Right now, they don't have one of those.
Trust That Defense
Sneakily, the Rockets are a top-10 defensive team, per NBA.com. That's a major accomplishment for them, especially considering how easy it is to get into a basket-trading frenzy when leads balloon and the game is well in hand.
Houston should continue to improve its stopping power as key players get healthier and chemistry grows.
Howard isn't what he once was on D, but he can still be a darn good anchor. His work against LaMarcus Aldridge on Monday turned the Blazers' fringe MVP candidate into a volume scorer who needed 26 shots to get his 27 points.
Harden has almost been shamed into better defensive effort after his gag reel of apathetic defense blew up on the Internet.
And then there's Patrick Beverley, who returned from a broken hand against Portland and completely changed the game with his pesky efforts:
#Rockets McHale "I thought Pat gave us a huge lift with his defense." Also said despite Aldridge's 27 & 20, it took him 26 shots to get it— AdamWexlerCSN (@awexler) January 21, 2014
Defense can be a legitimate identity for the Rockets—if they want to embrace it. Maybe their pace would have to slow a bit, and perhaps Harden's aggression on offense would suffer with more effort on the other end.
That may not be a sacrifice the Rockets are willing to make.
But cultivating a defensive identity is something they should at least consider if they're serious about stabilizing their play during the second half of the season.
Make That Move
Daryl Morey's a wheeling, dealing kind of guy. We all know this.
So even though Omer Asik is still on the roster, there's no guarantee he'll remain there through February's trade deadline. Moving him could give Houston the kind of help it needs to shore up some of its weakest areas.
The Rockets used Donatas Motiejunas at power forward in place of the injured Terrence Jones against the Blazers. And while the Lithuanian 7-footer contributed nine points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes before fouling out, he's simply not a consistent enough perimeter threat to scare defenses.
Ditto for the active, athletic, underrated Jones.
Both have been good in spurts, but neither player has helped create a more dynamic, reliable offense in Houston. Wouldn't it be easier for the Rockets to execute in the half court if their opponents had to extend way out to the corners to cover a legitimate stretch 4?
Right now, those opponents are pretty happy to see either Jones (28.3 percent) or Motiejunas (20 percent) fire away from long distance.
Of course, the Rockets could still slot Chandler Parsons into that role as an extremely undersized power forward. They go that route sometimes, and the "other" CP proved how dangerous he could be with a game-high 31 points against Portland.
But he's not a defender, especially against bigger opponents.
Ultimately, Houston is missing a piece. It needs someone to stretch defenses, create space for half-court execution and still defend passably on the other end.
Maybe that someone is Channing Frye. Before he went down with a back injury, many thought Ryan Anderson would be the answer.
Morey is always willing to make a move. If he can swing a deal to bring in a weapon, Houston could find life much easier against top-end competition.
Good, Not Great
Overall, the Rockets showed they could blow right past teams like the Blazers on Monday. But we already knew that.
When offense is easy and the tempo is quick, there aren't many teams more comfortable than Houston. Unfortunately, it'll take more than pace, chaos and tons of threes for the Rockets to do much damage in the postseason.
Just about everyone with real championship aims can defend against that stuff. Indy and OKC have provided the most recent proof of that theory.
The Rockets are a very good team that often looks even better when the conditions are right. But they have to find a way to excel against better competition and in a more reliable fashion. They shouldn't ever abandon what got them here; nobody wants to see the Rockets grounded on offense.
Instead, a few tweaks in strategy and personnel could be all it takes for Houston to go from "good" to "great."