5 Adjustments Houston Rockets Must Make Before the NBA Playoffs
With the playoffs around the corner, the Houston Rockets still have a few kinks to work out. There's a lot of tough competition in the West, so coach Kevin McHale will have to make the necessary adjustments for the Rockets to compete in the postseason.
Houston has had a solid season thus far, but there is room for improvement.
The defense has improved drastically, but the Rockets still have lapses. The offense is still stagnant at times. After acquiring Jordan Hamilton in a trade, the new rotations must become finalized.
McHale and his staff have plenty of things to address before the playoffs begin. Here's a look at five key adjustments that Houston must make.
5. Keep the Ball Moving on Offense
James Harden is an elite scorer. He has the outside range and can draw fouls in the paint better than anyone in the business. Sometimes, however, he holds onto the ball too much.
The Rockets like to play an uptempo style of offense with Dwight Howard inside surrounded by three-point shooters. Houston, averaging the third most points per game in the league, is at its best when the ball is moving.
Often times, Howard gets the ball in the post. There are few guys in the NBA who can guard him one-on-one, so he typically draws the double-team. Once the second defender comes, he is a good passer out of the double-team, and the Rockets can find the open shooter by making the extra passes.
The offense also runs smoothly when Howard sets pick-and-rolls with either Harden or Chandler Parsons. Both of them are capable of dissecting the defense by penetrating the lane off the pick, and many times the result is an alley-oop to Howard off the roll or Terrence Jones off the backdoor cut.
The Rockets have plenty of lethal offensive weapons, which is why it's no coincidence that they can score with the best of them. However, on some nights, the flow isn't there, and everything bottoms out.
On nights when they play a team that can defend Howard one-on-one in the post, they struggle offensively, especially when Harden has an off night. If Howard isn't playing well in the post, they have to stick with the pick-and-rolls in the offensive set.
If they don't, they can't score.
Way too frequently, Harden feels like he has to do all the scoring, and it gets ugly. The Beard likes to isolate himself in a one-on-one matchup, which makes the offense stagnant. Players are standing still, and the ball moves hardly at all. He works down the shot clock and then forces up a tough shot or passes it off last second to make someone else take an ill-advised shot.
Once the playoffs roll around, the tempo becomes much slower. The Rockets won't be able to consistently get out in transition, and they will have to play efficiently in the half-court sets. Harden will have to try to minimize his isolations, especially if the Rockets are matched up against the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers, who can defend Howard down low.
4. Keep Their Foot on the Pedal
On the nights when the offense is clicking, the Rockets are capable of busting open games early. However, once they have a comfortable lead, they take their foot off the pedal and let the other team come clawing back.
It's only natural for a team that's up by 20 or 30 points to take a breather. Every possession seems to be less critical, and a mistake or two doesn't seem detrimental.
But as they say, it's not over till the fat lady sings.
No lead is safe with the Rockets. They have blown tremendous leads all season long—as high as 25-point cushions. It doesn't matter if it's the first quarter or the fourth quarter, Houston's inconsistency on both ends of the floor gives teams the opportunity to go on huge, game-changing runs.
When you have a team on the ropes, you can't let up. Any team in the NBA is capable of winning on any given night, and when you have an opportunity to close them out, you have to take it. Especially in the playoffs, you don't want to learn a lesson the hard way and cost yourself a game, like the Grizzlies did a couple of years back.
3. Pick Up the Effort on Defense
With Dwight Howard clogging up the lane and protecting the rim, we know that the Rockets are capable of playing good defense.
Even though they give up the 12th most points per game, the Rockets are still ninth in the league at defensive efficiency. This is a giant improvement from last year, when they were in the bottom half of the league.
The biggest issue is effort. As you can see in the video above, Harden takes off possessions on defense, but he isn't the only one. It's a general team issue.
Other than Howard and Omer Asik in the paint and Patrick Beverley at point, none of the Rockets are particularly good defenders. The perimeter defense isn't a strength, but at the rate the Rockets score, it shouldn't be a huge problem.
Another big concern is rebounding. The Rockets get a lot of rebounds, but they also give up the second most offensive rebounds per game in the league, only behind the LA Lakers. Most of the time, it happens when Howard goes for a block, and no one is there to box out his man.
Hopefully the defense will continue to improve like it has over the past year and the intensity will pick up come playoff time.
2. Finalize the Rotation
At the trade deadline, the Rockets shipped of Aaron Brooks in exchange for Jordan Hamilton.
Hamilton is an athletic wing who can shoot from deep. He will fit nicely in the rotation as a replacement for Francisco Garcia, who has been struggling all season long. After losing Brooks, the Rockets were able to bring up Isaiah Canaan from the D-League as the third string point guard, and now they have a viable backup at the 3 for Chandler Parsons.
McHale and his staff have to figure out the minutes now...again. Hamilton could potentially become the sixth man for this team, with both Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik struggling upon their returns from injuries. In his short time with the team, Hamilton has already brought an immediate impact, even starting a game for an ill Parsons.
Before the playoffs occur, Houston should figure out everyone's role with the team and perfect the rotation.
1. Take Care of the Basketball
The last and most important adjustment for the Rockets is to take care of the ball. Turnovers have been the Achilles' heel for the Rockets all year long.
Both Lin and Harden, among others, are extremely turnover-prone. These giveaways lead to easy fast-break points, which the Rockets cannot afford to relinquish come playoff time. In a close game, easy freebies can be difference-makers.
Houston commits the second most turnovers per game, trailing only the Philadelphia 76ers. Lackadaisical ball-handling and careless passes make a recipe for disaster.
For example, when the Rockets recently played the Miami Heat at home, they won by a slim margin, 106-103, as LeBron James missed a three at the buzzer. The Rockets turned the ball over 18 times and let the Heat score 22 points in transition.
If it weren't for all those mistakes, Houston could have won by double digits. LeBron went 9-of-9 from within two feet of the basket, mostly on the break, but went 0-of-9 from outside of that range.
That tells the whole story. Houston can't commit lazy turnovers that could cost the game. Every possession is way too important in the playoffs.
All stats are from ESPN.com and are accurate as of 3/6/2014.