Plenty of people had the Rockets taking care of business against Portland, myself included. They had the superior offense and defense, home-court advantage and just as much, if not more, talent on paper.
Then the Blazers happened. They stole the Rockets' home-court advantage and are now sitting pretty with a 2-0 series lead.
The Rockets, meanwhile, are in dire straits. Lose Game 3 in Portland, and they're done. No NBA team has successfully come back from a 3-0 series deficit, so if they lay another egg Friday night, it's all over.
But by making the necessary adjustments, the Rockets can ensure that doesn't happen.
LaMarcus Aldridge is great and all, but there's no way he should be torching the Rockets defense for 40-plus points on a regular basis.
Through the first two games, Aldridge is averaging 44.5 points on a godly 59.3 percent shooting, putting him in the company of some random players named Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James:
LaMarcus Aldridge is first player with 80+ points and 15+ rebounds in team's first 2 playoff games since Michael Jordan (April 25-27, 1997).— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) April 24, 2014
LaMarcus Aldridge joins Kobe Bryant (2001) and LeBron James (2009) as the only active players to score 40+ in consecutive playoff games.— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 24, 2014
The Rockets aren't going to erase this 2-0 series deficit by allowing Aldridge to make history and join the ranks of active and retired legends. Limiting his offensive output is necessary.
It's also easier said, written and thought about than actually done. Houston's defense hasn't even been close to good through the first two games, so simply shutting down Aldridge won't be a mindless task. But it is possible. Or rather, making life difficult for him is possible.
Despite Aldridge going off for 43 points in just over 36 minutes of action in Game 2, there were a few things to like about how the Rockets defended him. In Game 1, 12 of his 17 made field goals came around the basket. Terrence Jones wasn't able to keep him out of the paint, and the help defense just wasn't there.
Although Aldridge shot 2-of-4 from deep—after hitting three treys during the entire regular season, mind you—those are shots you encourage and must live with if they go in. He was only 5-of-15 in Game 1 overall when shooting outside the paint, so the blueprint to "defending" him was there.
And the Rockets followed it for the most part in Game 2. Double teams were frequently used in an attempt to force the ball out of his hands, but to no avail. Aldridge wasn't making bad decisions, he wasn't deferring the responsibility of scoring to someone else.
But the Rockets did succeed in keeping him out of the paint. Nineteen of his 28 shots came away from the basket. Having nearly 68 percent of your looks come outside the paint isn't ideal, even for a power forward with range like Aldridge. In that aspect, the defense did its job.
Of course, there's one monstrous caveat: Aldridge drilled 13 of those 19 field-goal attempts, exposing the Rockets in a completely different way. Though it sounds absurd, they have to live with this, too. Making Aldridge beat you from that range is a far better scenario than watching him light it up at or around the rim.
Not that their defense on him was perfect, because, duh.
After re-watching Aldridge's scoring footage on Synergy Sports (subscription required), you can see that five of his made jump shots were poorly defended. Portland created separation, and Houston's defenders failed to close out, which left Aldridge wide open.
Open shots are open shots. Doesn't matter where they come from. Keeping Aldridge outside the paint is only part of the battle. Houston's defense needs to fight over screens or switch in a more organized, planned fashion. Aldridge is going to hit shots if you don't contest them.
On the flip side, most of Aldridge's made jumpers looked a lot like this:
There were hands in his face, defenders in his line of sight. He didn't care. He shot the ball anyway. Most of the time it went in. That happens. The important thing is not to deviate from Game 2's blueprint. It's almost good enough. Keep putting hands in his face, keep coercing him into shots outside the paint. If he beats you like that, then he beats you. But don't stop trying.
All the Rockets can and should do is continue forcing him into those tough shots, hoping they eventually stop falling.
Get Harden Going
To save their season, the Rockets are going to need their best offensive player to play better on offense.
I know, I'm such a weirdo.
Harden has struggled mightily through the first two games. He's just 14-of-47 from the floor (29.8 percent), and he was held to 18 points in Game 2.
Harden’s defensive lapses are so frequent and pronounced that they almost go without saying, even when Wesley Matthews is leaking out after a made free throw and waltzing to the rim for an easy layup in the final minute of a playoff game. On that particular play, which pushed Portland’s lead to six with just 33 seconds remaining, McHale didn’t pin the blame specifically on Harden, instead saying that it was a trap gone wrong.
The bigger issue for the Rockets is that Harden is not impacting the game positively on the offensive end. Harden boasted a 23.5 Player Efficiency Rating during the regular season, tops among all two guards, but he has now put up arguably the two most damaging offensive performances during the 2014 playoffs. Harden is the only player on any of the 16 playoff teams to shoot 19 or more shots in a game and make less than 33 percent of them, and he’s done it in both Game 1 and Game 2.
When Harden scores fewer than 20 points, the Rockets are 8-12 on the year, including playoff games. And when he shoots less than 40 percent from the floor, they're even worse (8-13). Getting him back in a groove is crucial.
A significant amount of Harden's offensive miscues come down to him simply not making shots. He's had some good looks through Games 1 and 2—shots that he is accustomed to hitting. He's just not hitting them.
Shot selection has been his Achilles' heel, though. Only 16 of his 47 total shots have come in the paint, and just 10 have come at the rim.
The Blazers allowed the third-most points in the paint of any NBA team during the regular season (46), according to TeamRankings.com. Their interior protection is generally weak. Robin Lopez is probably their best vertical defender. Harden's mindset need only be: attack, attack, attack.
Dribble penetration is the only way he'll get to the free-throw line, a big part of his game during the regular season and overall. He attempted just four free throws in Game 2, down from 10 in Game 1. Easy points are paramount when you're not in rhythm. Harden is one of the best players in the league at drawing/absorbing/exaggerating/faking contact. It's about time he used that to his advantage.
Settling for long, contested jumpers won't bring him out of his slump. It makes things easy on the Blazers and puts the Rockets in a situation like they're in now—on the brink of prematurely ending what figured to be a deep postseason push.
Push comes to shove, the Rockets defense won't be winning them this series.
The idea that they can shut down the Blazers for four of the next five games is laughable. They haven't shown they can stop the Blazers for stretches at a time. If they're going to win, if they're going to somehow advance, it has to be on the back of their offense.
To this point, their offense has found ways to score. That's nothing new. The Rockets score. It's their M.O. It's what they do. Shots won't always fall, but they will put points on the board, especially against inferior defenses.
But their lack of ball movement has really precluded them from reaching their postseason ceiling. They were already a subpar passing team entering the playoffs—18th in assists per game—and they've managed to get even worse.
Will the Rockets come back to win this series?
In both losses to the Blazers, the Rockets have handed out only 16 assists, more than five below their season average (21.4). While they've been running sets that call for routine passes and kick-outs, the ball-handlers—within pick-and-rolls especially—aren't making the decisions they should be.
Harden is among the most guilty parties, which ties into his series-long offensive strife. Four of his 14 made buckets have come off assists, per NBA.com (subscription required). He's been more inclined to create his own offense, while also ignoring roll men and spot-up shooters. Forcing things isn't going to help him or the Rockets.
When things aren't going their way, the Rockets are also resorting to ill-advised isolations, chucking threes when they should be trying to break down Portland's defense with rim attacks and passes. Roughly one third of their isolation plays in Game 1 ended in a three-point attempt, according to Synergy, only one of which went down. The Rockets corrected this issue in Game 2 but still failed to play the selfless kind of basketball that can make their offense so dangerous in the half court.
"We don't have our same flow, our same mojo that we had throughout the season," Harden said after Game 2, via ESPN's Tom Haberstroh. "We don't have our same swag that we go out there and just play and have fun with it. We have to get that back."
Once they get that swagger back, they'll be fine.
Until they start playing smarter on the offensive end and, yes, buckling down on defense, they won't get it back, they won't be fine, and they'll watch as their season goes down in a haze of poor decisions that could and should have been corrected.