Following a thrilling 123-120 Game 4 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers Sunday night, the Houston Rockets find themselves battling for their playoff lives as they head back home facing a 3-1 series deficit.
And just as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding predicted after the Rockets' Game 3 victory, Houston's offense continued to sputter as James Harden and Dwight Howard played a glorified version of my-turn, your-turn that slowed Kevin McHale's offense to a crawl:
They have a theory on how to play basketball, focusing on scoring via threes, free throws and in the paint, but they don't have a system that mandates Harden and Howard really being all-in as far as working together. Their style is basically alternating attack modes, which is the sort of simplistic approach that always gets mucked up come playoff time.
Examine common box score statistics and things don't look so bleak. Harden and Howard scored 28 and 25 points, respectively. Howard even made 11 of his 17 free throws.
But the continuity simply wasn't there.
Harden said they gave this game away just like they did in game 1. Howard said no when asked if POR stole this game. Said they gave it away— AdamWexlerCSN (@awexler) April 28, 2014
For the fourth straight game, the Blazers outscored the Rockets in the fourth quarter (27-22), due largely in part to repeated post-ups called for Howard down on the low block and lengthy, unproductive isolations from Harden on the perimeter.
If there's one thing we learned during the regular season, it's that Howard is most effective in pick-and-roll situations that take advantage of his quick movement off the ball and explosive leaping ability around the rim.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Howard ranked No. 5 among all players in pick-and-roll scoring this season, generating 1.29 points per possession as the roll man in such play types.
On post-ups, that number dropped to a paltry 0.76 points per possession, which ranked 126th overall, per Synergy.
Watching Dwight post-up is like watching someone who can almost sing audition for American Idol— netw3rk (@netw3rk) April 28, 2014
And after shooting above the league average in the restricted area during the regular season (68.4 percent, per NBA.com), Howard's field-goal percentage down low has plummeted to a shade under 58 percent in the postseason.
When Harden has operated as the primary ball-handler in Houston's offensive sets, a lack of chemistry frequently rears its ugly head. Too often, Harden is settling for mid-range jumpers, a disturbing trend that's cropped up at the most inopportune time.
Known for a style of play that oozes efficiency, Harden has actually attempted more shots between 16 and 24 feet than he has in the restricted area in four games against the Blazers.
As a result, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Harden's player efficiency rating has plummeted in tandem with a massive drop in his advanced shooting stats.
Reg season: 18.6% of Harden's shots were mid-range jumpers. This series: 28%. Small difference/tiny sample, but every little thing matters.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 28, 2014
Following a regular season that saw Harden post an effective field-goal percentage (which adjusts for the fact that three-point baskets are worth more than conventional two-point field goals) of 52.9, the Bearded maestro's conversion rate has dropped to a staggering 40.3 percent, according to NBA.com.
It would be one thing if these struggles existed in a vacuum on offense. The sad truth is that Harden's defensive efforts have been generally appalling.
Small sample size be damned, Harden has looked downright careless nearly every time down the floor, showing lackadaisical tendencies in the pick-and-roll. Blazers swingman Wesley Matthews visibly outplayed him Sunday evening.
If only McHale could say the same about Harden.
Instead, the Rockets have posted the worst defensive rating of any playoff team, surrendering 114.6 points per 100 possessions against Portland's vaunted spread attack, per NBA.com.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the Rockets have somehow been worse with Harden on the floor, ceding 116.2 points per 100 possessions while posting a net rating of minus-4.3 per 100 possessions.
Prior to tipoff, Harden reiterated that it was "very important for us to come out with intensity and realize that our season is on the line," according to the Rockets' official Twitter account.
Not only did he underwhelm to the tune of 9-of-21 shooting (3-of-11 from three) and five turnovers, but Harden allowed Matthews to steal his thunder by posting 21 points on a tidy 8-of-15 shooting (2-of-6 from three) and four steals, including the game's decisive theft.
Trail Blazers: 1 win away from 1st series win since 2000 (longest active drought in NBA)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2014
The intensity may have been there during a prosperous first half that saw the Rockets outscore the opposition by 10, but Houston's offensive prosperity waned down the stretch as Portland turned the tables and held Harden and co. in check.
Now scrapping for their playoff lives, the Rockets need an offensive intervention in order to regain vintage form before a decisive Game 5. The team that famously made a living by torching opponents in the paint and beyond the arc is shooting just below 57 percent in the restricted area and 30.6 percent on threes above the break, per NBA.com.
It all starts with Harden and Howard, the two polarizing stars who've yet to achieve the cohesion necessary to craft the Rockets into legitimate title contenders.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and current as of Monday, April 28 unless noted otherwise.