The Houston Rockets have been major offseason players in recent years in an attempt to build a championship team. Now with James Harden and Dwight Howard on board, how far can the Rockets push in the postseason?
The Story So Far
The Houston Rockets have been one of the biggest movers off the court in the NBA over the past few seasons, turning a stockpile of draft picks and cap space into a win-now playoff team.
In 2012, they climbed back into the postseason for the first time since the 2008-09, after acquiring James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder and signing Jeremy Lin. However, after being bundled out of the playoffs in the first round, it was clear that Houston needed to make more moves to be competitive.
Last summer, the Rockets brought in another big name, securing the signature of Dwight Howard in an attempt to push them over the top in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The team has experienced notable improvement, rising from the eighth seed in 2012-13 (45-37) to the fourth this season. Houston currently owns a 53-27 record and is half-a-game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers (53-28) with an extra game to play.
The Rockets have found success on the back of their elite offence. They score the second-most points per game (107.8, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers) and have the fifth best offensive rating in the league (110.9) while playing the fifth fastest pace (96.5).
That powerful offence revolves around two major factors: three pointers and free throws. Houston leads the league in three-point makes and attempts, and free throws made and attempted.
The biggest gun in the Rockets arsenal is James Harden (25.5 points per game, fifth in the league) and it is no surprise that he is amongst the leaders in the aforementioned categories – 14th for threes made, 10th for threes attempted, second for free throws made and third for free throws attempted.
Houston’s penchant for long bombs has also been fuelled by the addition of Howard to the roster. After a disappointing season for the Lakers last season, D12 has bounced back to the tune of 18.4 points (59.1% FG), 12.2 rebounds (fourth in the league) and 1.8 blocks (sixth) per game.
Howard’s return to form has allowed the Rockets to employ a similar game plan to that of the Howard-era Orlando Magic, surrounding their athletic centre with marksmen shooters – Chandler Parsons (16.5 points/37.2% 3FG), Harden (37%), Patrick Beverly (36.2%) and Francisco Garcia (35.8%) – and finding open shots with inside-out ball movement.
The Rockets’ defence still leaves something to be desired – 23rd in points allowed (103.2) and 13th in defensive rating (106.1) – despite the addition of Howard to the roster. Even the rise of defensive pest Beverly hasn’t been enough to save Houston from the inadequacies of Harden, Lin and Parsons.
Houston is once again a clearly improved team, but there is still work to do.
Postseason Performer to Watch
Harden burst onto the scene with the Thunder as a prolific bench scoring option, averaging 16.8 points off the bench in his final season in OKC. And once he made his way to Houston, that scoring ability was fully unleashed to the tune of 25.7 points per game in 150 appearances for the Rockets.
However, Harden has yet to show himself as a proven performer in the postseason. When the Thunder made it to the Finals against the Miami Heat in 2011-12, Harden’s averages fell to just 12.4 points per game on a woeful 37.5% from the field and 31.8 from deep.
Meanwhile, Harden’s former Thunder teammates also made life tough for him in their first-round matchup last season. OKC holding the Arizona State University product to 39.1% field goal and 34.1% three-point shooting, both well below his season averages.
Harden is such a major cog in the Rockets offence, and any struggles he endures could sway the result of a series. He is obviously one of the league’s most prolific scorers, but his all-around contribution should also not be overlooked. Harden also leads Houston in assists (6.1 per game) and while he is an underwhelming on-ball defender, his ability to jump passing lanes means he also leads the team in steals (1.6)
The man they call “The Beard” is also second amongst shooting guards for double-doubles with 14 and has a triple-double to his name this season.
If the Rockets are to stand any chance of making the Conference Finals, they will need their star guard to replicate his regular-season form in the postseason.
Houston are definitely a team on the rise.
The additions of Harden and Howard have completely changed the direction from the middle-of-the-road Rockets teams of the post McGrady and Ming-era.
Meanwhile, Lin (12.6 points and 4.2 assists per game) has been a serviceable, if not spectacular addition. Omer Asik (5.8 points and 7.9 rebound) gives Houston a starting-five-worthy backup. And Terrence Jones (11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds) is proving to be a steal.
However, they have yet to prove themselves as a force out West.
This season, Houston strung together 10 runs of at least three consecutive wins, but also lost consecutive games on seven occasions.
Inconsistency will be the death of this current Rockets squad.
They can score consistently, but any team that enters the playoffs in the bottom third of the league in points allowed will struggle against the high-powered offences of the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Houston has likely sown up home court advantage in the first round, but will still face stiff competition and likely be eliminated by cross-state rivals San Antonio in the second round.
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