After dominating the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, everything seemed to be looking good for the Houston Rockets.
Houston obliterated its closest rival, got a healthy return for star Dwight Howard, avoided a terrible matchup with the San Antonio Spurs and earned a second-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers, a team coming off a grueling first-round series that featured an injured Chris Paul.
Fast-forward to now, and everything seems like a disaster. Houston has been dominated by the Clippers, even when Paul hasn’t been on the court. Kevin McHale still hasn’t found an answer for the dominant play of Blake Griffin, and Austin Rivers has turned from a national punch line into a problem that the Rockets are having difficulty solving. So what has gone wrong for the Rockets?
For all the grief James Harden has caught for this series, it’s largely the role players that have doomed the Rockets offensively. Harden hasn’t carried the offense as much as he did during the regular season, as his points per game are down from 27.4 to 24.5 in this round. But he has actually been a bit more efficient, as he’s shooting .448/.444/.944 against the Clippers in the playoffs, compared to .440/.375/.868 in the regular season.
The Clippers have done a nice job of forcing the ball out of Harden’s hands, as he’s taking 3.6 fewer shots per game in this series than in the regular season. Harden has responded by upping his assists per game by two and trying to create better looks for his teammates.
Harden hasn’t gotten much help from his teammates, though. Houston knew it was playing with fire with relying on Josh Smith, but that paid off in the first round. Smith has come crashing down against the Clippers and has killed the team’s productivity. His 27.3 percent from the field is the fourth-worst among players taking at least five shots a game in the second round, and he’s shooting just 11.1 percent on threes. Simply put, Smith has continued to take the shots the defense are willing to give him, and he hasn’t hit them at all.
One of the only players shooting worse than Smith on threes in the second round? That would be Corey Brewer. Brewer went from shooting a scorching 53.3 percent in the opening round against the Mavericks to an abysmal 8.3 percent (!!!) in Round 2, which is the worst among players taking at least two attempts per game. Brewer always has been a streaky shooter, but this is an amazing swing that has devastated Houston’s offense.
Trevor Ariza is also only shooting 32 percent from three in this round, and with everyone around Harden struggling, Los Angeles hasn’t been as concerned closing out on shooters. This has brought the Rockets’ scoring down a ton, with the team’s offensive efficiency at just 95.9, worst of any team in the round, per NBA.com.
Despite the reputation, Houston was more of a defensive team than an offensive one during the regular season. Houston was 12th in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency in 2014-15, per NBA.com. So if the Rockets could maintain their high level of play on the defensive end, it’s possible the team could have weathered the storm of erratic offensive play.
However, the Rockets have suffered a defensive collapse just as alarming as the offensive one. Houston has been the worst team in the second round on that end as well, with a defensive efficiency rating of 112.7. With or without Paul, Los Angeles has had its way on offense.
Griffin has probably been the MVP of the playoffs thus far, and he’s putting up nearly 26 points a game on better than 53 percent shooting while dishing out six assists per game in this series. Rivers is tallying 16 points per game in the series and has been able to get into the lane whenever he wants.
But it’s J.J. Redick who has flown under the radar and absolutely killed Houston. He’s the second-leading scorer for the Clippers in the series, and he has gotten way too many open looks from deep.
Houston has tried to put Jason Terry on him for a good portion of the series, as asking Harden to run the offense and chase Redick around screens all game is just too much. But Terry hasn’t been up to the challenge. He has gotten beat around screens constantly, especially on dribble hand-offs (via YouTube):
And there are times the defense on Redick has been just baffling:
Why is Brewer helping off the strong-side corner here? Redick is the best shooter on the floor, and the Rockets have two other players in the lane to help on a Griffin drive. This is one of the worst shots the Rockets can allow in the half-court, and Brewer voluntarily allows it to happen.
The defense on Redick has been far from the only issue. The rim protection has been nonexistent for the Rockets. Houston has allowed Los Angeles to shoot 67.5 percent on shots within five feet, per NBA.com, which is worse than any team allowed this year. Howard hasn’t been as dominant on defense as he was in the first round, and he has had absolutely no support.
If Houston thinks the answer is more Hack-a-Jordan, it’s sadly mistaken. This strategy has been a huge part of the series, and much has been made about how it’s the only thing that went right for Houston in Game 4. But the advantage wasn’t as large as one might think.
Jordan went to the line 34 times in Game 4 and hit just 14 of those free throws. The Clippers didn’t have an offensive rebound on any of his free throws, meaning the team scored just .82 points per possession on the 17 possessions when Jordan went to the line. This is an awful mark, but there’s some hidden context here. Fouling Jordan allows Los Angeles to set its defense, thus not giving the Rockets a chance at fastbreak or semi-transition points. This is somewhere Houston excels, and the Clippers were much better on possessions after Jordan free throws. In fact, on the 17 possessions the Rockets had immediately following Jordan free throws, the team only scored 17 points.
So even in a scenario that was close to best-case for the Rockets, the edge in points was very small. That doesn’t even count the added bonus of rest for the Clippers’ stars during these possessions, and the fouls Houston has to pile up to use the strategy. Fouling Jordan hasn’t helped Houston out this series, and it likely won’t help them the remainder of it, either.
Houston spent the first round of the playoffs looking very much the part of a contender. Unfortunately, the team hasn’t looked nearly the same way in the second round. And unless the Rockets can pull off an epic comeback, the feel-good taste of this season will evaporate, and only bitterness will remain.