Ok, Ok, I don’t wanna jump all over the hyperbole train and suggest that this year’s Houston Rockets are any kind of souped up, three point shooting version of that beloved Detroit Pistons teams from the late 80s and early 90s. Doing that would be some kind of crazy disservice to a team that grabbed multiple championships, spawned a killer ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, and basically propped up Detroit’s economy until Big Sean came along and threw a bunch of hundreds out of a jeep. (Also, as further proof of the fact that analytics can be used to solve every single vapid, meaningless basketball debate ever, check out the 538 asking “How Bad were the Bad Boys anyway?“)
No Houston isn’t really that kind of team. Sure, they’ll clog up the paint with long, bruising forwards, but this is a team that will live and die (and I mean DIE) by the 3 point shot. Check out this table. Yeah, Houston is #1 shocker, but the real craziness is that they lead the number 2 team in the league by more than 6 attempts per game, making the gap between Houston and those wannabe Trailblazers about the same as that between #2 Portland and #17 Utah (!!!) Gaddamn.
So, using that as a super chill segue, I am proud to present the newest, way cool segment of Knicks at Night previewing the league’s surefire playoff teams (in no particular order!). And, after taking the Cavaliers to town, as I looked on with a giddy, beer-induced grin on my face, the Houston Rockets are the first team on my list.
There’s been a lot said about Moreyball and how the league is going to need to seriously consider moving back the 3 point arc if they want the game a few years from now to look anything like it has in the past. And yes, “Dork Elvis” does ultimately make the roster calls that stack the Rockets with surprisingly effective outside shooting bigs (as well as horrible, GOD NO PLEASE DON’T TAKE THAT, more-than-willing 3 point marksmen.) But a lot also has to be said about Kevin McHale’s read-and-react offense allowing the Rockets the freedom to basically play like the world’s best pickup team and take all the ME-ME-ME three pointers and And-1 drives to the basket that they like. While Houston guns much closer to the league average in terms of pace than a top tier mark, they play with a ton of unpredictability, making them a little trickier to defend than someone like Phoenix who will pretty much consistently take it coast-to-coast as soon as they grab a rebound. I mean, just watch them. A broken possession becomes Harden flying to the basket in the drop of an eye, bailing out the whole team and drawing a chorus of groans from the opposition as he gets ready to take his foul shots.
And yes, it does all come back to Harden. Did you remember DWIGHT HOWARD IS ACTUALLY ON THIS TEAM??? Check this article. That was on February 1st and the Rockets have gone 8-4 since then with Ws over the Cavs, Raptors, Clippers, and Suns. Over the last month Harden is averaging a ridiculous 27 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.5 rebounds a game while shooting a pretty sweet .500 AFG from the field and delivering a nice kick in the nuts to anyone who says Houston isn’t a title contender without Howard.
Well in the murderous Western Conference those haters might be right. But that’s exactly what makes this team so friggin’ badass.
Harden and his bunch of hateable, hateable pests truly believe they have the moxy to hang with anyone in the league on any given night. Regardless of whether Dwight, and his still fairly elite rim protecting skills, competes, this is still a strong defensive team that is going to get under its opponents’ skin and get to the line a ton. While they are obviously much stronger when the World’s Greatest Prankster suits up, outscoring the other team by nearly 5 points as opposed to a mealy .9, the sheer number of threes they take every game gives them a chance to beat even the best teams in the Association if the deep bombs start falling.
Even outside of the occasional fortuitous rainstorm, Houston also has another sneaky good factor working in its favor to help them hang in close games. With Prigioni and Jason Terry taking turns spelling Pat Beverley, and joined by Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, and now KJ McDaniels, set to come off the pine, the Rockets have a scary good bench with the length and athleticism to just smother up opposing second units. While the playoffs definitely serve to shorten a team’s lineups and force more minutes on the starters, there’s something to be said for staggering the playing time of D-12 or James and letting one of the big boys provide a little offense as the Houston second unit just wears down on their competition. Also, having the option to play multiple rangy, defensive minded forward/wings like Ariza, Jones, and Brewer gives the Rockets one of the same strengths that the Golden State Warriors have been riding to success all year long.
Howard is a huge variable here and his absence for large swathes of the season is another reason these Rockets are so compelling. Yes, Howard is at least half deserving of the terrible rap he gets as flaccid and passionless. And yes, the Rockets have won a ton of games and discovered a real tough-nosed identity with him sidelined. Still, there’s the real concern that without the big man in the playoffs, Rockets’ opponents may be willing to forsake some of those outside shooters to overload on Harden, not only assigning their best defender, but also playing a more conservative scheme that allows them to drop back deep in the paint and dare James to beat them with high floaters or kickouts to his less-skilled teammates. Howard changes all of that. Regardless of where you think this guy is in his career, Dwight is still a player who can go to town on the block and put up points against most of the defenders he’d draw in the West. Steven Adams? Robin Lopez? And with the pace slowing down a little and Howard possibly drawing help defenders (gasp!) it opens everything up for Harden’s drives and the Rockets’ outside shooters. Record without him aside, Howard gives the Rockets another wrinkle come playoff team and might just mess with other teams’ strategies as they’ve had to gameplan without him for much of the season.
Not to mention James Harden is reeeaaally, reaaaalllly good guys. I don’t know when exactly this season I went from absolutely hating his stupid beard, hating his arrogant, stupid hitting on strippers, and hating his terrible, stupid defense and flopping, to just loving the way he approaches the game. This is a guy who is going to cut every corner, expose every loophole, and just bulldog his way to winning the game and pissing off every single person he goes up against. Its gone from being comedic, to shameful, to just plain unstoppable. And, even as Curry demonstrates the unbelievable two way swing a single player can have on his team, it all comes down to number 13. If you think someone can stand in the way of him grabbing that MVP trophy, I’d say try standing in front of him as he drives to the basket.
And good luck.