5 Factors That Will Determine Houston Rockets' Playoff Success
Loaded with talent, guided by unique principles and quickly assembled, they're still hard to predict.
And Houston will face a less urgency to succeed in this year's playoffs than some of their Western Conference foes. Older teams like the San Antonio Spurs, with their championship window closing, are probably in some sense envious of the early-contender phase that these Rockets now find themselves.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, too, must see some relief in the Rockets' circumstance. This Houston squad is under less pressure. They won't truly be appraised until next season, once they've gotten more time under them.
But don't think the Rockets aren't hungry to win. They are. There are just some very particular things they'll have to get right if they want to do it now.
The Rockets, as it stands, will face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round—and they’ll hold home-court advantage in the series. Current standings suggest this series is nearly a lock to happen, although there's still time for it to change.
This bodes well for an appearance in the conference semifinals, as the Rockets have had Portland’s number this year. Houston has won three of the four head-to-head meetings between the teams and averaged 117.8 points in those four games.
Portland's style plays right into the Rockets’ favorite mode, encouraging an open-court shootout that James Harden and company specialize in. Barring a dramatic change in style or uncannily hot shooting from Portland, the Rockets will be favorites.
The next round brings more questionable prospects, as the Rockets would probably have to square off with the Thunder or the Spurs—the Clippers may still sneak into the two seed, but it’s a long shot.
Both teams are much more experienced, savvy contenders than the upstart Rockets. Houston’s won three games against the Spurs this year, but they haven’t seen San Antonio since they found their impressive late-season form, winning every game they played in March and racking up a 19-game winning streak.
The two meet on Monday, April 14, just in time for a playoff preview. Depending on how these two teams rest their respective stars, the matchup could a preview of how a series between them would go.
The Rockets recently beat the Thunder in Houston, too, but Russell Westbrook didn’t suit up to play, resting his injury-prone knee instead. Every time Westbrook does dress—and even sometimes when he doesn’t—the Thunder exercise a big brother’s prowess over the Rockets. They’ve got the antidote to Harden, Howard and the rest of the Rockets.
This is the way the dice rolls for nearly every team in the wicked Western Conference—some pairings are wildly favorable, others are nightmares, and the seeding barely reflects which matchup is which. There’s parity in this pool of excellence, and the Rockets (like everyone else) have only so many ways to swim to victory.
Patrick Beverley's Health
The status of Patrick Beverley’s meniscus is the single biggest question mark facing the Rockets as they approach the playoffs.
Without that ball pressure, the Rockets will have to rely even more than usual on coercing teams into a full-court frenzied style so as to minimize their bad perimeter defense.
The Thunder have had success denying the Rockets their preferred open-court approach, particularly when they blasted them 104-92 on Jan. 16.
"We were able to come down and stifle them a little bit and get them out of their rhythm,” Kevin Durant said, quoted by AP. He was being modest: the Thunder held Houston to just 19 points in the second half after forcing the Rockets into slower possessions.
It’s probably no coincidence that Beverley was out of action, injured for that game. In addition to his terrific defense, he’s often also the cool head who can effectively get Houston into its offensive sets when baskets aren’t coming easy, averaging just 1.1 turnovers per game on one of the league’s most turnover-prone teams.
But why does a more methodical brand of basketball present such a challenge for the Rockets?
The Rockets are racers. Averaging 100.6 possessions per game—fifth in the league—they treat every trip down the court like it’s expiring in much less than 24 seconds.
Such is Moreyball. General manager Daryl Morey has instilled an offensive philosophy that has Houston prioritizing shots at the rim or from behind the arc, perhaps to an extreme degree.
The Rockets have gotten better at operating in more condensed areas since more holistically incorporating Dwight Howard into their offense over the last few months. Pick-and-roll action between Howard and Harden has been especially nice.
But it’s clear that Houston’s still eager to get galloping whenever possible. Running often is the easiest way to get those favorable risk-reward shot attempts.
“The idea that finding good shots is easier early in the shot clock has been around for a while,” writes ESPN’s Beckley Mason. “And was made famous by Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns. The Rockets' front office will tell you playing fast is the most efficient strategy given their roster and league norms.”
Getting more comfortable playing on a congested court, however, might be the only way the Rockets can upset expectations in these playoffs. Against many likely opponents, it could be their only choice.
Readiness of Terrence Jones
Another way for the Rockets to surprise the league would be through the emergence of Terrence Jones. Jones has filled essential holes in Houston, but is just 22 years old, and experiencing his first NBA season with significant playing time.
The difference between regular-season and playoff performance can be a mysterious and difficult one for younger players. If Jones is anything like teammate Chandler Parsons, who saw his first playoff action last season, the Rockets are in luck. Parsons’ shooting percentages and points per game actually improved in the opening round against the Thunder.
Jones’ combination of size and mobility has been crucial for the Rockets this season, and if he’s unable to find his form in big moments, Houston may have to experiment with lineups including both Howard and Omer Asik. Previously, this combination has led to spacing problems and a clunky offense and hasn’t even yielded them the rebounding advantage they anticipated.
Thus, strong postseason play from Jones is something close to inexpendable, and he'll be thrust into the prime-time thresher. Whether he has that inexplicable gene that allows him to stand up to it remains to be seen.
At 15.5 turnovers per game, the Rockets are better than only the fledgling Philadelphia 76ers at taking care of the ball.
A shrewd head coach—Gregg Popovich, for instance—will know how to exploit such loose handles over the course of a seven-game series.
The Rockets’ best chance at minimizing this flaw? It’s Patrick Beverley, of course. Like in so many other areas, Beverley acts here as the glue between Houston’s many explosive parts. His 4.57 real plus-minus (14th in the league) is a testament to this.
To take care of the ball, and ultimately have a chance in these harsh Western Conference playoffs, the Rockets need their point guard back.