Kevin McHale's Lineup Shift Brings New Playoff Hope for Rockets in 1st Round

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Kevin McHale's Lineup Shift Brings New Playoff Hope for Rockets in 1st Round
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Say this for Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale: He's not stubborn...or, at least, he's not that stubborn.

With his team down 0-2 in its best-of-seven first-round series, and facing the Portland Trail Blazers and the rowdy crowd at the Moda Center on Friday night, McHale called the lineup equivalent of a Hail Mary...not once, but twice.

First, he started center Omer Asik alongside Dwight Howard in the "two towers" arrangement that had failed so spectacularly at the beginning of the regular season.

And if that weren't crazy enough, he went with former D-Leaguer Troy Daniels—he of the 75 career NBA minutes coming into Friday—for critical minutes in both the fourth quarter and overtime.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Well, not only did McHale's hunches pay off, they paid off spectacularly. Asik finished a team-high plus-13 in 27 minutes. And Daniels shocked the basketball world by hitting the game-winning three-pointer with 11 seconds left in overtime, as the Rockets pulled out the 121-116 victory.

Suddenly, McHale and the Rockets find themselves back in this series, and it's all thanks to one of the most unlikely players imaginable. 

 

Asik's Redemption

Omer Asik signed a three-year, $25 million deal with Houston in the summer of 2012 with the idea that he'd be starting at center for the duration of the contract. Unfortunately for him, the Rockets found yet another center a year later, when Howard signed with the club.

McHale tried starting Asik at power forward for the first eight games of the season, but the lineup was quickly abandoned as a failure.

How bad was the pairing of Asik and Howard? According to Basketball-Reference, the Rockets were outscored by an average of 15.7 points per 100 possessions in the 104.1 minutes the two of them shared on the court.

Not only was that the worst two-man pairing involving Howard by far, but Asik was one of only two Rockets to have a negative on-court rating with the All-Star center (Ronnie Brewer being the other).

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

But McHale needed someone to guard Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who eviscerated the Rockets for 46 points in Game 1 and 43 points in Game 2. Regular starting power forward Terrence Jones, who had thrived alongside Howard in the regular season, was simply too small to stay with Aldridge. 

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So Houston resurrected the twin towers, and it was a rousing success. Aldridge had by far his worst performance of the series, scoring 23 points on 8-of-22 shooting from the field. He was even worse than that in the first half, scoring just four points on 2-of-8 shooting.

McHale's lineups forced a strategic change from Portland head coach Terry Stotts, who went away from starting center Robin Lopez in the fourth quarter in favor of a small-ball group featuring Aldridge at center.

Houston responded by going small as well, which gave Daniels his chance to shine.

 

Meet Troy Daniels

McHale went with Troy Daniels at forward for seven minutes in the fourth quarter before subbing in starter Chandler Parsons in crunch time.

Daniels would get another chance, however, as Houston blew a big fourth-quarter lead for the third time in this series. The Rockets were up 102-93 with 5:31 remaining, but the Portland trio of Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Mo Williams shot the Blazers back into the game.

Meanwhile, the Rockets' fourth-quarter offense devolved yet again into a hodgepodge of perimeter isolation plays and Dwight Howard post-ups. Here are their shooting numbers from the 5:31 mark of the fourth quarter until 11.9 seconds remaining in overtime:

  • James Harden: 1-of-7
  • Howard: 0-of-2
  • Jeremy Lin: 1-of-3
  • Patrick Beverley: 0-of-1

If the ball wasn't going in to Howard on the block, it was staying in the hands of Harden and Lin—neither of whom could buy a bucket down the stretch.

Even that fateful final possession began as yet another example of Houston's late-game offensive impotence. Harden tried to drive but was stripped of the ball. Lin recovered it in a mad scramble and, with the shot clock running down, found Daniels for the three.

And legions of basketball fans around the world collectively thought, "Who is this guy?"

Daniels had a nice career as a three-point specialist at Virginia Commonwealth University, averaging 12.3 points last year as a senior while shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc. He went undrafted in the summer of 2013 and signed with the Rockets' D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Landing in the Vipers' three-heavy system turned out to be a godsend for Daniels, per Grantland's Jason Schwartz: "All we do is shoot 3s. And that’s what I do.”

Indeed he does. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey gave Daniels a lofty bit of praise, per Schwartz: "Of the shooters that I’ve had either on the Vipers or the Rockets, the two best are Steve Novak and Troy Daniels."

Novak, of course, led the NBA in three-point percentage in 2011-12 (47.2 percent). And now Daniels has laid claim to one of the biggest threes in Rockets playoff history.

 

Are These the New Rockets?

With Game 4 set for Sunday, the question is whether the Rockets will continue to play with their lineups.

There's no guarantee that Asik will continue to do such an effective job on Aldridge. Was Friday night's defensive performance a trend, or were Aldridge's shooting numbers simply bound to regress to the mean?

In a series dominated so far by the All-Stars—Harden, Howard, Lillard, Aldridge—it was refreshing to see some role players get their dueBut make no mistake, the Rockets are going to need more from Harden, who shot an embarrassing 13-of-35 from the field.

Only one player has attempted more shots in a postseason game in the last decade, per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:

The best hope for the Rockets moving forward is that the events from Game 3—particularly Daniels' game-winning shot—will encourage Harden to at least pass off some of the offensive burden to his teammates.

 

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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