First thing’s first: The Houston Rockets aren’t done. Down 3-1 in their Round 1 bout with the Portland Trail Blazers, they can still turn the ship around and advance to fight another day. Let’s not have the funeral just yet.
But the Rockets have shown growing pains that distinctly suggest this is an inaugural, angsty and likely concluding title run. Their chemistry and game-planning have been off. They look, simply, unready for this territory. Their performance is still miles below their ceiling.
Signs of Houston’s bright future have been present in the series—it just hasn't had its stylistic balance right enough to consistently win.
No component is more important to the Rockets’ growth than the synergy between James Harden and Dwight Howard, their two best players. The key to a dependable half-court offense in Houston is a Harden-Howard pick-and-roll, but the two looked reticent to run the play in the series until they had their backs against the wall in Game 4—an 123-120 loss.
Why the hesitation with the pick-and-roll? This one’s a head-scratcher, as the action was easily their deadliest scoring option through the regular season. And the Rockets planned to include a hefty dose of it from the moment they signed Howard. From Red94’s Rahat Huq:
When Houston Rockets brass made its free agency pitch to Dwight Howard this past summer, many of the details of that meeting were later leaked. One point of emphasis upon which management stressed was the synergistic potential of Howard with James Harden, in the pick and roll. The thinking went that because Howard was a year or so removed from being the best pick and roll finisher in the league, and Harden was statistically one of the best pick and roll ball-handlers, the two players together could form a devastating combination.
In place of pick-and-roll calls, the Rockets have seen far too much failed iso-ball heroism from Harden and Howard. Whether this is a result of coach Kevin McHale’s strategizing, Harden and Howard’s individual decision-making or the result of something else entirely is unclear. Portland's schemes deserve some respect, as they have baited such play by not double-teaming too much. But the Rockets' on-court communication between the two stars has looked rusty at best.
It’s possible that the pressure of massive expectations has gotten to the duo. “They have huge expectations. They talk about championships. We just talk about the next game,” said Blazers wing Nicolas Batum, per The Oregonian.
But there are other problems with the Rockets, too.
That Omer Asik has been regularly included in lineups with Howard only once the Rockets started their third playoff game also smells funny. Terrence Jones, with his ball-handling and aerial athleticism, is a more ideal fit in the Rockets’ running style and has thus gotten far more time next to Howard all season.
But any Houston fan could have told you that the Rockets defense would be at its stingiest with Howard and Asik sharing the floor, and the early results from these playoffs overwhelmingly prove that point. From Hardwood Paroxysm’s Miles Wray:
The game looks quite a bit different when Asik is tasked with guarding [LaMarcus] Aldridge. Quite unlike Jones and Howard, Asik has a keen understanding that defense begins when the opposing team gets the ball, not when your specific man gets the ball. Compared to the free-range roaming that Howard and Jones allow LaMarcus, Asik is already bothering Aldridge from the earliest seconds of the shot clock.
Superstars: Play together.
Underdeveloped, undersized sophomore: Sit for the huge, seasoned defensive expert. It's best not to let Aldridge continue to his scorching Game 1 and Game 2 pace. He collected 89 points on 35-of-59 shooting in the contests. Asik and Howard held him to just 52 over the next two games.
These seem like easy fixes, no? When the Rockets make them, they’re a scary team. Particularly with straight-from-the-D-League sensation Troy Daniels on the floor—a man seemingly invented to fit into general manager Daryl Morey’s three-point-happy vision—Houston has at times looked like their very best selves in this series.
But then they only frustrate further, reverting to faulty methods later on. Down the stretch of Game 4's loss, Houston inexplicably ran a swath of pick-and-rolls with Howard and Chandler Parsons instead of with Harden, who looked almost exiled as he floated near the corner of the floor. What gives?
Is there acrimony in Houston that we're not privy to, or is this just the look of a team that needs more time? Either way, this is a team that looks out of sorts too often. Harden and Howard have never been natural locker room leaders, and McHale doesn't seem to pick up the slack either. Someone needs to bring the focus—and fast.
Perhaps a disappointing first-round exit can sink the Rockets to a no-expectations phase, where they find themselves next season and unlock their massive potential. Or maybe Houston's best is just yet to come in these playoffs. If it's not, and the Rockets are toast, it will be interesting to see how they handle this offseason.
Will Morey feel an even greater need to bring in more superstar dynamite, or will he stand pat and trot out a simply more refined, calmer version of this year's team? The way he'll roll the dice may be a sort of referendum on the unique set of beliefs used to form this team's roster and style. But maybe it shouldn't be; maybe the Rockets just need another year.