The 2013-14 NBA season ushered in a new era for the Houston Rockets. High playoff expectations are once again on the horizon. Now that we’re halfway through the year and coming up on the All-Star break, where do we see them going?
As with all teams in the jungle of the Western Conference, the answer to that question is all about matchups. For the Rockets, this means finding teams who can’t match their open-court, blitzing offensive style.
The San Antonio Spurs, thus far, have shown themselves to be one of these teams. Whether the wily veterans will take their game to another level come spring could change the balance between these two squads.
But in the regular season, it’s been all Rockets. They’ve won all three games between the two, by an average margin of nine points.
The difference speaks to the Spurs’ inability to keep pace with Houston. They simply lack the youth to sustain 48 minutes of the Rockets’ style.
The question, come postseason, will be whether San Antonio can effectively deny them the open court, dropping back aggressively and eschewing offensive rebounds to get set defensively before Houston can get into their preferred quick motions. It’s a look the Spurs have shown before, and it could be one to undo these Rockets.
A team certainly capable of taking the Rockets’ style away from them is the Memphis Grizzlies. After defeating the Grizzlies twice without Marc Gasol, Houston lost two in a row to them recently after the return of their big man. Memphis held them to 87 and 81 points in the losses—two of their lowest point totals of the season. They were able to force the Rockets into half-court offensive sets, where they struggle to produce consistently.
By using Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and Tayshaun Prince as full-court defenders who force the Rockets to get the ball out of James Harden, Jeremy Lin or Chandler Parson's hands, the Grizzlies were able to keep the Rockets from their lightning style.
A similar result was seen in the Rockets' last game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a stunningly strange affair in which Houston racked up 73 first-half points and then struggled mightily once the Thunder buckled down in the second half, putting just 19 on the board in the second-half. The Thunder are a team too disciplined, seasoned and athletic to allow the Rockets thrive in their charging style.
When it comes to the Golden State Warriors, many questions linger. The Rockets have thus far had their way with them, beating them twice—once in a 105-83 blowout.
But neither contests saw Andre Iguodala on the floor, the versatile wingman whose speed, leaping ability, intelligence and body control could be anathema to the Rockets in the open floor. Judgment is difficult to pass on how these two match up, without any evidence on that front.
More manageable for the Rockets is the prospect of a series against the Portland Trailblazers. They’ve taken two of three games against them, averaging 117.7 points per contest. The teams operate on comparable score-first, three-pointer-first platforms. The Rockets are just better at it, and would be comfortable gunning Portland off the floor in a series.
The only remaining enemy on the checklist of the Western Conference’s upper-crust is the Los Angeles Clippers.
Quite the opposite of how they fared against Portland, the Rockets lost to the Clippers twice in the early season and looked unable to match their firepower. In their first loss, they gave up 137 points to L.A. But the teams haven’t played since Nov. 9th, and the Rockets have done their fair share of chemistry-building since then. Stay tuned for their upcoming games after the All-Star break.
In sum: the Rockets are a tough team among the cream of the Western Conference crop, but their best matchups are against the Blazers and Spurs. Against the Grizzlies and Thunder, they’ve looked second-tier. When it comes to the Clippers and Warriors, a lot remains to be answered.
Like with every season, however, we won’t get any real certainty until springtime rolls around.