Breaking Down Houston Rockets' Late-Game Woes

John WilmesContributor IFebruary 3, 2014

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) yells to fans during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Dallas.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

The potent Houston Rockets attack scares many teams in the NBA. But lately it’s looked like their biggest rivals only have cause to worry about it for two or three quarters.

The Rockets need to be more cold-blooded, and cease allowing teams back into games for disappointing losses. 

But what do they need to do in order to better put their foot on the second-half pedal?

The Rockets’ late game ailments aren't simple. They’re a combined result of the team’s various shortcomings. But each of their most glaring, significant deficiencies—perimeter defense and half-court creation, to name a couple—are the result of an unhealthy basketball diet. 

Teams have learned how to use their binge style against them.

The Rockets’ emphasis on shooting from beyond the arc and close to the rim in the open court, racing against the shot clock, is a novel, typically effective approach. It’s taken them to a formidable 32-17 record this season.

It’s also clear, however, that this affront fizzles out against more experienced, disciplined teams with machine-like half-court wrinkles—like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies. Both teams have recently spanked Houston down the stretch of big games after the Rockets lit things up in the first half.

The Jan. 16 game between the Rockets and Thunder seems especially telling. After jumping to a halftime lead over OKC behind a blazing 73 points, the Rockets were held to merely 19 in the third and fourth quarters combined, and lost the contest.

What this game showed us is just how bare the Rockets’ playbook really is. This is a serious problem against steely defensive teams like the Thunder and Grizzlies, who can either fall back in anticipation of the break or use any number of quick-handed defenders (Reggie Jackson and Mike Conley, namely) to hound ball-handlers and prevent the Rockets from their open court reign.

When the clamps come down and the easy opportunities fall away, Houston has shown itself to be without the strategies necessary to deceive and penetrate top-tier defenses. Creative and powerful as James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard are, they need something more than isolations and elementary screen-and-rolls to get the job done.

Chemistry certainly plays a role. Given how quickly this team was put together, and the on-and-off injury problems to most members of their core, the Rockets simply haven’t had a ton of time with which to familiarize with one another.

LM Otero/Associated Press

Make no mistake, though—it’s also time for the team to reconsider its playing identity. A group with the best center in their conference in Howard simply shouldn’t be having this many problems in the half-court, and they wouldn’t be if they adjusted to a technique that better accommodates the big man.

What appears to be a lack of a killer’s edge in big games may actually just be the results of an incorrect style. The Rockets’ pressing takes teams off guard at first, but when they see Houston’s eagerness for the fast break over and over again, it becomes predictable. They dig in their heels and take away first and second options.

When it comes to third, fourth or even fifth options—which will certainly be needed for victories in the playoffs—Houston is at a loss. Their late game offense relies on James Harden isolation possessions with potential pick-and-rolls near the elbow, and an array of shooters around the arc. It's become all too easy for teams to put a lid on this attack. They need more motion.

Transition offense should still be a key part of the Rockets' ways. They just need to vary their looks so that their running can help them instead of hurting them, as it does when it becomes too automatic.

Raw ability will take this team only so far. Now is the time to build something complex and multi-faceted enough to withstand the length of a game against an elite opponent.

Get to the film room, Rockets.