5 Biggest Mistakes from Houston Rockets This Season
The lessons continue to come after a 2013-14 season of progress and growing pains for the Houston Rockets.
James Harden, Dwight Howard and coach Kevin McHale, in particular, are under the microscope of fans and pundits. Despite winning 54 games and sometimes looking the part of a title contender, the Rockets achieved only two playoff victories before a first-round elimination at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers.
That’s the same number of playoff games they won the previous season—without Howard.
Where did Houston most go wrong?
Not Expanding Their Playbook
The Rockets’ half-court offense was arguably the largest part of their postseason undoing. This extends beyond the alarming lack of calls for the deadly Harden-Howard pick-and-roll.
Strategically speaking, Houston frequently looked unprepared when defenses took away the fast break and made the Rockets score in more complicated ways. Like Scott Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Coach McHale frequently seemed to believe that his roster’s superior athleticism would muscle the team through weak game-planning.
The crux here is that McHale—like Brooks—was often right in this method. The Rockets have an overwhelming troupe of young shooters and shot creators, and they outmuscled teams with their firepower throughout the season.
But a lack of more advanced planning demonstrably hurt the Rockets in crunch time. They largely depended upon someone—namely Harden or Howard—to bail them out with very difficult shots. The Rockets are very talented, so sometimes this actually worked. But all too often, it didn’t.
Overinvesting in Running
Harden’s scoring frustrations in the playoffs were no fluke.
Harden, like his team, feasted on open-court opportunities all year. There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, it makes the most of his singular footwork. He makes snappy, deceptive decisions with his legs that are all the more devastating in transition, and he’s surrounded by capable three-point shooters who make running all the more appealing.
There’s nothing more essential to playoff offense, however, than a balanced diet. You need to be able to score in many ways to win four out of seven games against one team. Opponents make adjustments to take away your favorite moves. That Harden shot 38 percent from the field against the Blazers—after a hot 46 percent mark during the season—is telling. He simply couldn't get loose the way he likes to.
With another year together, hopefully Harden and these Rockets can invest in more playing modes.
Underusing Howard-Asik Combo
The Rockets figured out how effective pairing Howard and Omer Asik could be against Portland.
But that happened only after a scorching LaMarcus Aldridge punished Terrence Jones for a combined 89 points in Games 1 and 2. Houston was then forced to finally use the duo together again, after giving up on their previous experiment with the two big men. That effort ended abruptly at the season’s onset, as Jones took Asik’s place in the starting lineup in November.
Houston realized too late that the key to lineups with Howard and Asik was to employ it in just the right situations. It took the desperation of a 0-2 series hole for the Rockets to see their rotation as fluid and work Asik back into a heavy-usage role.
Against quicker, smaller and more perimeter-oriented teams, this combo might be a death knell. But Portland, like the Memphis Grizzlies and often the San Antonio Spurs, features two prominent, fairly traditional bigs. The Rockets have the antidote to that in two of the best big-man defenders in the whole league, and they failed to perfect this attack over the season.
Next season, fans should hope to see this tandem used in plenty of spots and not dismissed on an all-or-nothing basis when it fails in particular settings.
Lacking Defensive Focus
Surely you've heard by now: James Harden is a terrible defender. He even fails to meet the effort quota, as more and more is demanded of him offensively in one of the league's most exhausting blitzkriegs.
It's not just Harden, though. We all remember Chandler Parsons' gaffe on the season's decisive play—Damian Lillard's heart-wrenching buzzer-beating three in Game 6.
The moment was representative of the Rockets' defense of the three-point line. Grantland's Zach Lowe had this to say on the subject:
Houston’s defense on the perimeter is a well-chronicled mess outside of the delightfully feisty Patrick Beverley. Jeremy Lin works his tail off, but he’s often at a quickness disadvantage, and he tends to ball-watch and lose his man on cuts off the ball. Chandler Parsons is smart as all hell, but he’s not as fast as the league’s speediest wings, and he often lunges himself out of possessions by jumping passing lanes in pursuit of steals he has little chance of snagging.
Teams were able shoot or cut through the perimeter on Houston all season. Luckily, the still formidable Dwight Howard was there to occasionally save Houston from his teammates' blunders—but it shouldn't be that way.
In order to become Clutch City again, these Rockets must improve their guard and wing defense.
Having Bad Luck
At the end of the day, the Rockets did a lot of things right. A first-round exit is a bad look—especially against a beatable opponent like Portland—but it says less than some (understandably) emotional fans suggest.
This is a good, serious team that happens to be finding itself in a ridiculously competitive conference. The Rockets took a huge leap forward this season and hit their worst growing pains against a more cohesive, better prepared Blazers team.
"We are close off the court, but we have to be that way when we're on the floor at all times. We've got to have each other's back," Howard said to Sean Pendergast of the Houston Press. "Going back and watching the film and how that Portland team was, it's something that [our] guys can learn from. [The Blazers] were together: Their bench, their coaching staff, every play, they looked like they were all in it."
Still, nearly every game was a tossup—the only convincing victory of the series, in fact, was the Rocket's 108-98 victory in Game 5.
Give the Rockets another year, and they may correct their initial flaws enough to become above such fickle turns of fate, laughing at the memory of this sour defeat.