The biggest obstacle that stands in the way of the Houston Rockets' quest for an NBA championship is the team itself. With the playoffs nearing, injuries and mental errors continue to plague one of the league's most promising teams.
The Rockets (49-24, as of April 1) have a grasp on the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining on the schedule. They are riding a two-game losing streak with an interesting showdown against the Toronto Raptors on tap for April 2.
The recent losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets highlighted flaws that have been the story of the Rockets all season. With the team already playing short-handed, turnovers and an inability to find a groove from behind the arc cost them dearly.
Overcoming these issues will be huge in the team making a deep postseason run, as will some good fortune in the seeding. The Rockets hold a 1.5-game lead over the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. However, with games against Toronto and Oklahoma City Thunder up next, things could take a crazy turn down the stretch.
How the Rockets finish these next few weeks remains to be seen. For now, let's take a deeper look at the potential pitfalls that could cut Houston's season short.
The Rockets suffered a couple of key injuries in recent weeks when point guard Patrick Beverley tore his meniscus and center Dwight Howard had fluid drained from his strained left ankle. The good news is that neither injury is as severe as initially believed.
There was a fear that Beverley would miss the remainder of the season after tearing cartilage in his right knee against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 27. According to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, Beverley could miss only a few weeks after Dr. James Andrews examined the point guard's knee and MRI results.
Spoke briefly with Beverley about an hour ago. He definitely sounded pretty chipper.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) March 31, 2014
Rehab will determine when Beverley can return to the court. If all goes well, he could be back sooner than expected. For now, it seems the team dodged a bullet by not having one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA go under the knife.
"I don't feel a lot of pain, which is a great thing," Beverley said, according to an earlier report by Feigen. "No swelling, which is a great thing. It wasn't in the same area a lot of players tore their meniscus. I feel pretty confident about it."
As for Howard, the big man doesn't seem concerned by his latest run-in with the injury bug.
"There was more fluid in there the next time I saw the doctor," Howard said, according to Feigen. "It was best I get the fluid out and just rest. I'm not worried."
Just talked to Dwight Howard. Says he will not play next 10 days due to L Ankle. Clippers meet Rockets tonight @ 5 on Prime Ticket.— Ralph Lawler (@Ohmeomy) March 29, 2014
Howard has missed the last two games and isn't expected to play in the team's next game against Toronto. With the team's spot in the playoffs all but clinched, D12 is going to take his time and prepare for when the games matter most.
"There is no need for me to rush and re-injure myself," Howard said. "I tried last week (against Charlotte and Philadelphia). It didn't work out too well for me. I don't think it's smart. The biggest thing I can be concerned with is the playoffs."
While there's reason to be optimistic over the returns of Howard and Beverley, a setback to either could be tough for Houston to overcome. Beverley is the team's best (and perhaps only) perimeter defender. Without him, the Rockets will have a tough time in a Western Conference filled with elite outside scorers.
If, for some reason, Beverley can't make it back as quick as he hopes, the team will have to rely on the inconsistent Jeremy Lin and inexperienced Isaiah Canaan at the point. Neither has the defensive chops to be able to contain a potential rival such as Portland's Damian Lillard or the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry.
The same goes for Howard. While Omer Asik is a more than capable backup, he won't be able to replace the all-around greatness of the league's best center should Howard be out longer than expected.
The team's recent injury scare really speaks to its lack of depth. With Greg Smith also out, the Rockets don't have many big men behind Asik and Donatas Motiejunas. Forward Omri Casspi had to play some center in the team's most recent loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Throughout the season, the bench has struggled to provide a spark. Houston is 25th in the NBA in bench scoring with an average of 27.2 points per game, according to HoopsStats.com.
Of course, this is a moot point if Beverley and Howard are in uniform when the playoffs start on April 19. However, if they aren't, Houston will have a tough time playing short-handed and advancing in the playoffs.
Turnovers have been an issue for the Houston Rockets for quite some time. They led the league in that category last season with an average of 15.8 turnovers per game. This season, only the tragically inept Sixers average more turnovers than Houston's 15.7 per contest.
The team had 19 turnovers in the loss to the Clippers on March 29. In comparison, the Clips only had nine. Houston followed that up by turning the ball over 15 times in a loss to the Nets three nights later. In both games, Rockets guard James Harden was the main culprit when it came to mental mistakes.
The Beard's propensity for making mental errors has been a problem all season long. His 3.7 turnovers per game is fourth-worst in the NBA. This would be less of a hindrance if Harden could come up with more stops on defense.
It doesn't stop at Harden, though. Dwight Howard also has a problem with holding on to the basketball. His 3.3 turnovers a game puts him just five spots below his tag team partner on the list of the league's worst.
This is just another example of the Rockets being their own worst enemy. Championship teams don't routinely shoot themselves in the foot. Houston must find a way to curtail the mental errors to stand a chance in the playoffs.
On the bright side, Houston's potential first-round opponent (Portland) is the league's worst at forcing turnovers. Opponents average 11.6 turnovers a game when they've faced the Blazers this season.
Still, Houston should focus on playing smarter basketball these last few weeks in preparation for the playoffs. It may be tough for a team that relies so heavy on attacking the basket and getting to the line (league-leading 31 free-throw attempts per game), but it's a must that Houston finds an alternative.
The Houston Rockets have a tendency to fall in love with shooting the three—and for good reason. When the team gets hot from outside, it is tough to beat. During a four-game stretch in March, Houston shot 50.5 percent from behind the arc.
Unsurprisingly, it won all of those games.
"It's important to shoot the three and have confidence making them," James Harden said, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech, "because that is a part of our game."
When the Rockets go cold from the outside, however, the court might as well look like a scene out of The Day After Tomorrow. In the recent loss to Brooklyn, Houston tried to get back in the game by living at the three-point line.
When the dust settled, the Rockets went 10-of-35 from deep (28.6 percent) and lost by nine.
"We shot too many (3-pointers)," said head coach Kevin McHale, stating the obvious, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "We didn't attack. We settled a lot. We didn't shoot very well. We didn't drive and kick for each other. We took a lot of bad shots."
The key here is moderation. The Rockets could still be an effective three-point shooting team, but it can't be the glass jar they break open in case of emergency. Living and dying by the three-point shot is a slippery slope for an NBA contender.
Sure, when the team gets hot, it's easy to justify launching a ton of shots from the perimeter because it usually leads to victory. However, there's no coming back when the team goes cold and just foolishly puts up bricks.
In Houston's defense, the team was without Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard for the Nets game, which left it without its two best options inside. Still, if the team gets back to full strength, it should try to become more diverse on offense.
The Rockets have the personnel to beat opponents in a variety of ways. They are at their best when they can space the floor and play inside-outside with Howard drawing attention away from shooters on the perimeter.
Houston can't afford any more cold streaks in the playoffs. The Rockets are 0-8 in games where they shoot under 40 percent from the field. If or when Howard and Beverley return, Houston must re-embrace making the extra pass and playing team basketball instead of settling for lazy jumpers.
On paper, Houston has everything you'd want in a potential NBA champion: a dominant two-way big man, a dynamic scorer and a slew of emerging, young talent. The trio of Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons is a daunting task for any team to stop for a seven-game series.
When you throw in role players such as Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, the Rockets have a chance to be a real problem in the playoffs.
In truth, only Oklahoma City and Los Angeles (combined 7-0 against Houston) should give the Rockets fits in the postseason. Even the San Antonio Spurs, winners of 18 straight and counting, have to prove they can withstand Houston's youth and athleticism.
However, before Houston can worry about those teams, it must find a way to hurdle the obstacles it's put in front of itself.