Sometimes, winning is less about what you do and more about what your opponent doesn’t do.
How good have the Rockets been of late? Pretty darn good, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
With their 118-113 overtime win over the Trail Blazers, the Rockets are an NBA-best 23-6 since Jan. 1.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 10, 2014
After clawing back from as far down as 13 points in the final quarter, the Rockets—down three with just under 12 seconds remaining—turned to All-Star forward James Harden, who buried a corner three to force overtime. Houston eventually prevailed in the extra frame.
Blazers head coach Terry Stotts elected not to foul Harden on the floor and Portland wound up paying the price.
Was this the kind of luck a streaking team occasionally carves out for itself? Absolutely.
The stuff of a championship front-runner? Not so fast.
Full disclosure: Last week, we took a look at how the Rockets have evolved from plucky conference threats to legitimate contenders thanks in large part to upticks at both ends of the floor.
The Rockets were as advertised on offense in their Sunday showdown with Portland, with Harden’s peerless one-on-one heroics, Jeremy Lin’s hard-charging drives and Dwight Howard’s powerful low-post presence each yielding their own timely moments.
The victory over Indiana was particularly instructive. Pitted against the NBA’s most ferocious defense, the Rockets connected on 53 percent of their shots from the floor (including 46 percent from distance) en route to a notice-serving 112-86 dismantling of the visiting Pacers.
Since January 28, the day Houston began its torrid streak of 15 wins in 17 games, the Rockets rank third in the league in overall offensive efficiency (110.9) and second in overall net rating (plus-9.2).
Indeed, Houston has all but proven that its offense is built for the long haul—a sturdy, stable attack predicated on precise spacing, a legion of capable of shooters and D12’s prowess in the paint.
According to stats provided by 82games.com, the Rockets are an impressive 13-6 against teams ranked in the top 10 for raw points against (points allowed regardless of pace).
Against teams in the top 10 for effective field-goal percentage (a metric that takes into account both two- and three-point field goals), the Rockets are a middling 11-9.
Short of diving into how the Rockets have fared against, say, in-conference teams that are above .500, this chart provides some useful data in showing that, once the playoffs roll around, the Rockets might run headlong into their own defensive weaknesses.
In an interview with SportsRadio 610's In the Loop (h/t CBS Houston) that aired last week, ESPN NBA analyst and former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy summed up quite succinctly the challenges Houston faces:
They’re going to score enough to win. Scoring is not going to be [the Rockets] issue. The issue is turnovers and, to me, an every night defensive presence. Because if they get that they are a balanced team and balanced teams win. This is a team that can win a championship.
Back in February, Bleacher Report’s Dylan Murphy emphasized the point that, while Houston has both the personnel and track record to be a consistent defensive team, its spotty perimeter defense could be what dooms the team in the end:
The Houston Rockets have the capability to be a top defensive team in the league. Defense is often a matter of mental makeup and effort, and right now the team lacks the necessary level of intensity on that end of the floor.
If their perimeter players keep putting Howard in compromising positions, he will continue to foul and not be able to intimidate at the rim. Players are no longer afraid of going at him because they know it's a relatively easy path to get there. Once in a while they'll get blocked, but they know they can neutralize his impact by getting him in foul trouble.
With a full month and change left before the playoffs, it’s fair to wonder whether Houston is peaking prematurely—whether it can truly sustain the gangbusters play of the past few weeks.
The Rockets offense is an elite one—that much is clear. But if they hope to even sniff the NBA Finals, they’ll have to prove that their suddenly solid defense is more than just a flash in the regular-season pan.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 9 unless otherwise noted.