Houston Rockets Can't Win a Title, but Can Mess Up NBA Playoffs

Sim Risso@@SimRissoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2014

If the Houston Rockets have proven anything this season, it's that they're good enough to knock off anybody when they're rolling. That makes them incredibly dangerous when it comes time for the postseason.

However, despite their ability to hang with the best teams at times, they've also shown the inability to wax some of the worst teams. They still haven't shown the consistency required of a championship-caliber team, raising questions about their ability to win the four series needed to capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy.


Houston, We Have Lift Off

Take their most recent 97-90 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. It was Houston's third win in a row against San Antonio. 

The Rockets thoroughly outplayed the defending Western Conference champs. They did work on the boards, outrebounding San Antonio 55-39, including 19 offensive rebounds. That's no small feat considering the Spurs came into the game as the third-best defensive rebounding team in the NBA.

They also held the Spurs, who boast the league's fourth-best offensive rating (110.3 points per 100 possessions), to 90 points on only 42.7 percent shooting from the floor.

Perhaps what's most amazing about Houston's performance is the fact one of its best players, James Harden, didn't even suit up due to a thumb injury.

Harden's the team leader in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, usage percentage, scoring and a host of their categories. They're not just empty stats either—the shooting guard has a profound effect on the team.

Houston has an offensive rating of 108.7 and a defensive rating of 101.3 when Harden's on the court. When he's sidelined, the performance drops off considerably, with the Rockets posting an offensive rating of 103.7 and a defensive rating of 104.2. 

James Harden's impact when in the game
Offensive ratingDefensive ratingNet rating
On the court108.7101.37.4
Off the court103.7104.2-0.6

Despite their understandable drop-off in the absence of perhaps their best player, the Rockets were able to beat a San Antonio team tied for second in the conference and four games ahead of them in the standings.

But it's not just that Houston happens to have San Antonio's number. The Rockets have had similar success against some of the league's elite teams.

They are 2-0 against the Golden State Warriors, a team currently sitting in sixth in an incredibly stacked Western Conference. And it's not like the Rockets pulled out two close victories either. They beat the Warriors by an average score of 110.5 to 97.5.

Golden State is one of the league's better defensive teams. It gives up an average of 99.6 points per game and posts the third-best defensive rating at 102.2 points per 100 possessions. No worries—the Rockets still torched them for at least 105 points in each of the contests.

The Portland Trail Blazers are another example of an elite team that's struggled against the Rockets. Houston has won two of its three games against Portland, with one of those victories coming in Rip City, where the Blazers are 18-4.

As is generally the case with the Rockets when things are going right, they beat Portland with their up-tempo offense. How they won isn't really surprising—who they did it against is.

The Blazers have been the league's premier offensive team in 2013-14. They have a league-high offensive rating of 113.6 and lead the NBA in scoring at 109 points per game. So while Houston's offense is undoubtedly good, Portland's is better. Yet the Rockets went off for 116 and 126, respectively, in each of those two victories.


Falling Back to Earth

But just as the Rockets have torched some high-quality teams like the Spurs, Warriors and Blazers, they've also had their puzzling struggles against others. 

They've yet to unlock the secret to beating the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC has won both meetings against Houston this year, and while simply losing to the conference-leading Thunder isn't overly concerning, the way in which they lost is.

Houston's only mustered an average of 89.0 points against Oklahoma City. On the one hand, the Thunder happen to be one of the league's better defensive teams—they have the third-best defensive rating.

On the other hand, Houston's up-tempo style of play is its calling card. The Rockets are fifth in scoring, averaging 105.0 points per game. They're also eighth in pace, with 95.5 possessions per game. To be so thoroughly shut down on offense is a concern for the Rockets.

The Clippers are another team that's seemingly had their number, as they're 2-0 against the Rockets. Unlike Oklahoma City, though, Los Angeles is beating Houston with its offense.

L.A. is averaging 122 points in its two victories over Houston. The Rockets, for their part, were able to have some offensive success in the contests, averaging 106 points.

However, it's their inability to slow down the Clippers, particularly from downtown, that's leading to these losses. Three-point shooting is another one of Houston's calling cards. It's shooting a league-high 26.2 threes per game and making 9.0 of them, which is sixth most. Los Angeles isn't as reliant on three-pointers, shooting them 24.1 times per game and knocking down 8.4.

Yet in their two victories over Houston, the Clippers are averaging 31 three-point attempts, with 12 of them going in. Again, it's an example of the Rockets getting beat at their own game.

Breaking down Houston's inconsistencies against elite opponents
Points forPoints againstRecord
Golden State110.597.52-0
San Antonio111.5102.53-0
LA Clippers106.0122.00-2

 Fighting Gravity  

So what does it all mean? In the grand scheme of things, it shows the Rockets aren't nearly consistent enough to win an NBA title. When they're good, they're really good, as they've demonstrated against teams like the Spurs, Warriors or Trail Blazers. 

Maybe most encouraging is that they've also shown an ability to beat these teams in a variety of ways. That's the sort of versatility needed to win in the postseason. You need to win 16 games to take home the championship, and not all 16 games can be won by following the same blueprint. That ability, if corralled, could be enough to get the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

But equally discouraging is that their performance from game to game, and against opponent to opponent, is inconsistent. For example, while Houston is handling the aforementioned playoff teams, it's a combined 3-5 against the Kings, Lakers, 76ers and the Jazz. That simply won't cut it.

Unlike other teams, Houston's never been there before. Turning it off and on is a scary proposition for championship-level squads. The Rockets have no such experience to draw on. Besides, they've never really been "on" for long enough to know what that's like. Their longest winning streak on the season is only five games.  

It could just be the Rockets have never reached their ceiling. When they do, it could be enough to win the whole thing. Now more than halfway through the season, at some point the idea of their potential goes out the window. At some point, you just are what you are.

For Houston, that's a team capable of beating the best on one night, then turning around and getting run off the floor the next night.  

Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.

Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso


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