For a team with numerous lingering questions heading into the postseason, the Houston Rockets are decidedly in a good place from a matchup standpoint.
Their opening-round opponent is Portland, the team among the Western Conference's top five the remaining four would most want to play. The Blazers are one of the league's best stories this season and an offensive juggernaut. They're also a young-ish team without much playoff experience under their belts with a leaky defensive foundation. For a Houston team that can at times have its own lapses on the defensive end, this is a far better matchup than most other alternatives.
San Antonio lingers in the second round, and is obviously the favorite in any playoff series this side of Oklahoma City. But the Spurs went 0-3 against the Rockets during the regular season. A long series or maybe even upset is far more likely than those watching Houston scuffle down the stretch are giving credit.
This season has worked out largely the way Daryl Morey planned. The Rockets general manager has acknowledged the team doesn't currently have the necessary third superstar to compete for a championship. This season is about building a foundation for the future and coalescing the true contender he envisioned when pilfering Dwight Howard away from Los Angeles. Howard's decision itself looks like a no-brainer in retrospect, with the purple-and-gold house a dilapidated hellscape and Houston preparing to open its preseason.
The final judgment on Howard leaving $30 million on the table won't be decided by regular-season wins. He came to Houston because he'd rather stick a knife through his hand than play one more minute with Kobe Bryant to compete for championships. On the fringes of Western Conference contention, Houston's journey begins at the Toyota Center this weekend.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at a couple of big storylines for the Rockets heading into Round 1 and predict the seven-game outcome against Portland.
|4/20||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/23||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/25||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||10:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/27||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||TBD||TBD|
Rockets Round 1 Storylines
Are Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley Healthy Enough to Anchor the Defense?
An acknowledgement: I'm not a fan of Patrick Beverley playing through his torn meniscus. Dr. James Andrews told the Rockets guard he wouldn't need surgery and Beverley missed eight games while recovering, yet the history of meniscus injuries in NBA players is bleak—especially when they force themselves back too soon. If I were in Beverley's camp or even Houston's front office, I would have taken a long, hard look at sitting him down and rolling the dice with Jeremy Lin.
Alas, that's not the world within which we live. Beverley is a tough S.O.B., and if a doctor says it's possible for him to play, he's going to be on the court grinding every last nerve of your favorite NBA point guard. He has no off switch, no coast function. It's what makes him absolutely perfect for this roster—which features a few players with light-switch mentalities—and a miserable person to play against.
Beverley returned to the Rockets lineup the same day as Howard, whose bothersome left ankle cost him 11 games over the past month. Both have looked in relatively fine form since returning, giving credence to the talk their absences were more precautionary.
“I feel like I was in a better rhythm,” Howard said after scoring 20 points and grabbing 17 rebounds in Monday night's win over the Spurs, per . “I am going to continue to get in shape and to get my wind back so I can do more things on the floor.”
Houston needs both players in full bloom against Portland. The Rockets finished just outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency this season, usually the general marker that separates true contenders.
James Harden is a mostly bad and inattentive defender, so much so that it became a running joke during the regular season. Harden tends to flick a switch in big games, but he shoulders such an offensive load it's hard to expect him to be anything "not terrible." Chandler Parsons tops out as average. He ranks in the 41st percentile in defensive isolations situations, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Terrence Jones is active and tries hard, but he's going to have a difficult time if Kevin McHale expects him to guard LaMarcus Aldridge in the post.
With Beverley and Howard playing sparingly the last month, Houston has defended at a bottom-half rate and generally struggled to stay focused. That's to be expected with their two best defensive anchors hurt. Houston's margin of error simply becomes apparent here if Beverley or Howard suffer a reaggravation or don't play at top form.
Lin is still a net negative defensively. Omer Asik is one of the game's best rim protectors, but moving him into a high-minutes role creates rotational friction whereby the Rockets bench hemorrhages points.
The Blazers can put up points against any team. Defense is the one area where Houston has more talent and grades out better on paper. If that advantage evaporates over the course of this series, the Rockets could be in trouble.
Finish. At. The. Rim.
The Rockets aren't lovingly called the NBA's "Moneyball" team without reason. Morey has long pushed the team to the forefront of analytics, to the point where his front office is now a breeding ground for future general managers. If there is a curve in the NBA, rest assured that Morey is already ahead of it—and pushing his way toward finding the latest market inefficiency.
Only this season we've begun to see a real, concerted push toward analytics playing a dominant role in the Rockets' on-court play. The Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston's NBA D-League outfit, is essentially little more than a lab experiment where Morey and Co. can help judge the merits of what the numbers tell them.
The big club doesn't run quite as extreme as its minor league counterpart, yet Morey's strategical hand is shown in (where else?) the numbers. No NBA team took fewer mid-range jumpers than the Rockets.
OK, that phrasing isn't even doing the reality justice. Twenty-eight of the NBA's 29 other teams took more than double the Rockets' mid-range shots. The lone exception is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are unsurprisingly run by Morey protege Sam Hinkie. And even Philly took roughly 600 more mid-range shots than Houston.
I imagine watching the Rockets over a seven-game series would send Doug Collins—he who sends love letters to mid-range jumpers—into therapy.
Houston, as analytics and its roster construction would suggest, emphasizes shots in the restricted area and beyond the arc above all others. Only three teams attempted more shots close to the basket and none were more active from beyond the arc this season. The Rockets slash and kick, then they kick and slash and then, maybe, just maybe, they'll slash and kick one more time.
Just don't confuse Houston with a pick-and-roll team. Per Synergy, Houston finishes out of pick-and-roll sets only 15.6 percent of the time—the NBA's lowest rate by a good margin. The Rockets are far more prone to isolation (fifth) and transition (second) looks than a traditional Spursian slash-and-kick method.
I'd like to see Houston move more away from Howard's preferred back-to-the-basket post-ups to emphasize his unstoppability in pick-and-rolls. Mainly because Howard and the Rockets could struggle mightily near the rim if they don't.
One of the biggest falsehoods you'll hear heading into this series if Portland struggles protecting the rim. Blazers opponents torched Portland in the paint superficially, with only the Lakers and Timberwolves allowing more total points against. Portland was one of two playoff teams in the bottom 10 (Clippers).
Here is where we give the 4,531st example of why using "total points" and per-game metrics is flawed. Not only did Portland's quick pace contribute to all the wonky per-game stats you'll hear cited over the weekend, but its problems defensively are decidedly not in the middle—but in its perimeter players' inability to keep teams from getting near the rim.
The Blazers are in the same conversation with the Bulls, Thunder and Pacers among the league's best rim-protecting teams. Opponents shot 42.5 percent at the rim when Robin Lopez was within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot, per SportVU data. Lopez was second to Roy Hibbert in that category. LaMarcus Aldridge allowed a 49.9 percent conversion rate, above average among players who saw at least five shots at the rim per game.
Basic post plays don't work against the Blazers. Teams that have torched their defense break down their weak and undisciplined perimeter defense to collapse the middle for easy shots. The simplest way to do that is running Blazers guards through a gamut of pick-and-rolls. Portland finished third worst in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers and was in the middle of the pack against roll guys, per Synergy.
It's not about getting shots at the rim. It's about getting good ones. At times, when the Rockets regress into isoball, they can get away from that.
Round 1 Prediction
Is it a cop-out if I predict a whole lot of fun and move on about my day? Oh, it is? Fine.
I don't see Houston-Portland going any less than six games. The teams are similarly prone to defensive lulls to the point where they're both going to feel like they allowed one game to slip away simply on discipline. Their regular-season matchups tell us to expect every game to hit the over on 200 total points.
How will Houston-Portland play out?
The Blazers, after regressing back to the mean we all expected, may be undervalued at this point. Their five-man starting lineup outscored opponents by nearly nine points per 100 possessions during the regular season, one of the best rates leaguewide and more than a point better than Houston's most-used unit.
This ultimately comes down to identifying which team's weakness is more glaring and exploitable over a long series. The answer, as one would expect, is Portland's defense. It's below average even with the starting five on the floor and begins falling off a cliff whenever Aldridge or Lopez sits. Even with the improvements to the bench depth, there just isn't enough help in the frontcourt to offset the hemorrhaging in those minutes.
The Rockets are flawed and are one Howard or Harden injury away from real danger. I just don't suspect it will happen in Round 1.
Series Prediction: Houston in 6.
Stats via NBA.com.
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