A preliminary note here: The Houston Rockets are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The Dreamshake has covered the Rockets for quite some time and there's a certain level of conversation and exchange that we've come to expect. SBNation itself takes pride in offering professional quality and a fan's perspective. To that end the debacle witnessed in last night's game thread has pushed the equivalent of Saint Monica (Google it) on the site here to a point he should never hit. Consider this the general notice that if you are looking to merely whine, offer no perspective, put no modicum of thought into your post, or contribute nothing useful in a team-centric mentality, you will receive one additional warning. We're not asking for dissertations in the comments and you can be snarky in the comments (This isn't a bright line rule) but this incessant stream of "SCREW MCHALE!" and "This is all on Harden's awful D!" or "Jeremy Lin needs to be in for these stretches, McHale is wasting all his talent!" needs to stop. It's detracted from what used to be a really intelligent and marquee community of Rockets fandom. If you want to make the aforementioned comments I would like to direct you to Twitter, The Houston Chronicle, ClutchFans, or SportsTalk 790.
Alright, now that that's out of the way, on to the task at hand. Contrary to popular belief last night's loss against the Lakers, in Los Angeles, with suspicious officiating, and ESPN espousing how LA/San Antonio would be a great matchup for the Lakers, did not knock the Rockets out of the playoffs. Houston fell to the 8th place in the West and gave ESPN their wet dream storyline of the Thunder v. Rockets. In some ways it'll be a better storyline in three years or so when it's for the Western Conference championship. Until then, however, apparently the "James Harden versus his former team" is a more compelling storyline as a four game sweep. Beats me how it is but I don't get paid for this.
So, before we dive into our taste of sweet, sweet, playoffs for the first time in years I wanted to look at how the Rockets play on average, and how they play specifically against the Thunder. The key to this type of analysis is that we're seeing how close to exceptional we have to play in order to stand a chance. I looked at the core of the Rockets to figure out who needs to play most like an anomaly for us to be successful. Ideally I would have done a full line up analysis but when I opened up a spreadsheet tab for Greg Smith it insulted my intelligence and said "Small sample size, huge package size, bro." Using excel (Yes, the anti-stats guy used excel to compile data) to get a team based average I went over to the NBA's advanced statistic read outs to see just how the Thunder managed to make those stats a reality. I avoided usage stats as those remained largely the same across all players surveyed here. My only regret is that I don't have a Synergy account.
Caveat that I'd like to offer; this is a lengthy and stat-laden look at the match up. If you want my usual style of writing skip past the stuff with numbers.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you BD34's playoff preview against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Jeremy Lin: 13.4 Points/6.1 Assists/3.0 Rebounds/1.7 Steals/32.2 Minutes/ 2.5 Fouls/2.9 Turnovers
James Harden: 25.9 Points/5.8 Assists/4.9 Rebounds/38.3 Minutes/2.3 Fouls/3.8 Turnovers
Chandler Parsons: 15.5 Points/5.3 Rebounds/3.5 Assists/36.3 Minutes/1.9 Fouls/1.9 Turnovers
Omer Asik: 10.1 Points/11.7 Rebounds/1.1 Block/30 Minutes/2.7 Fouls/2.1 Turnovers
The Oklahoma City Thunder (1-2 Regular Season Record)
Jeremy Lin: 14p/7a/4r/2s/36min/3f/3.3t
James Harden: 29p/3r/4a/38min/2f/3t
Chandler Parsons: 14p/5r/5a/35min/2f/4 (Injured for one game)
Omer Asik: 10p/10r/.3b/26min/2f/2t
Average margin of loss: 16 points (3 games)
At first blush we see the team performs roughly at or above their scoring averages. James Harden and Jeremy Lin actually out perform their average. Unsurprisingly the Thunder tend to force more turnovers when they play the Rockets (Shockingly though the bulk of the turnovers takes place with Harden or Lin OFF the court) but that's not where the trouble for this match up is. The problem with the backcourt against the Thunder becomes how Oklahoma City alters the shot chart of these two guards. The Rockets traditionally avoid the mid range game and prefer either the deep ball or attacking the rim. With Harden on the court the Rockets see a dip in their shooting percentage from the wings and the top of the key and in the paint. Funny enough the Rockets actually play better from mid range with Harden on the court against the Thunder. When James steps off the court, however, the midrange game falls apart but see vast improvements across in scoring in all other areas of the court. This speaks to Jeremy Lin's shot chart and a surprising coincidence. The shot charts don't alter all that much when Lin is on the court. The shooting percentage in the paint increases slightly with Jeremy on the court. When Jeremy steps off the court perimeter shooting sees an improvement (Due to more perimeter passing and less penetration from the wings) with the midrange and paint area becoming a tragedy.
It's no real surprise that the Thunder frontcourt does a good job of limiting the rebounding numbers of Houston's backcourt. After all, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka alone do a lot to prevent opposing teams from eating glass. The more troubling stat that comes out of all this is the free throw attempts. When it comes to the backcourt the problem seems to come from aggression. The Rockets take less free throws with Jeremy Lin on the court. With Harden on the court the Rockets are at their average for free throws attempted and made. That number drops when Jeremy is on the court. This can be attributed to the increase in shots in the paint but not at the rim with Jeremy on the court.
Ultimately the Rockets back court needs to find aggression and hold to it. James Harden needs to play closer towards his average against the Thunder for the simple fact that his numbers bear out he turns the ball over less and scores more. Jeremy's assist numbers are above average against the Thunder but if he attacks the basket and the team follows that lead then the backcourt is in for a real treat against the Thunder.
The Thunder's greatest impact and, thus, the focus for the most criticism lays in the front court. It's tough to have to say this but the two guys who dominate the Rockets Dreaminess Power Rankings find their biggest struggles against the Thunder. The triple double champion Chandler Parsons is paired up with Kevin Durant and inherently struggles. Omer Asik is matched against Serge Ibaka and a team that leverages the mid range and deep game. The shot chart with Chandler Parsons on the court harmonizes beautifully with James Harden and Jeremy Lin's in all areas except for shots at the rim (Where Chandler's presence increases the conversion rate). Parsons presence does see a dip in free throws attempted and made, however which speaks to the increased percentage of corner threes. Turnover numbers spike with Chandler on the court as well which merely reinforces the fact that against OKC Parsons turns the ball over at twice his usual rate. When Parsons heads to the bench the Rockets return to stunningly mediocre everywhere except the wing and top of the key three. The interior game completely disintegrates without him.
Omer Asik's shot chart is the incredibly interesting one in the frontcourt. Shots at the rim see a massive rise and the team begins forfeiting more floaters in the paint and three pointers in favor of attacking the basket. It's fascinating because Asik has only treated us to one game where he scored over ten points against the Thunder but the team attacks when they know the Big O is there for them. When Asik leaves the team tends to look for the corner three and mid-range game. What this all seems to imply is that since Asik is guarded by Serge Ibaka the big Turk is the safety blanket for the team. Ibaka is necessarily drawn off the center or stuck to him when he's playing in the post which the team takes advantage of.
The key for the frontcourt in this series is going to boil down to some very fundamental aspects of basketball. With Chandler Parsons he needs to take care of the ball. Chandler's role as the harmonizer needs to look more like a slasher than a shooter to get the to the line and convert some easy opportunities. The best lineup to make this happen is going to require James Harden, Omer Asik, and Chandler Parsons since the team seems to respond best to attacking with him that trio. Asik needs to play bigger defensively because going from a block a game to failing to record more than half a game against a team is a sharp decline in impact.
Defensively the Rockets do a stunning job on altering Russell Westbrook (The only Thunder player of note for the backcourt Thabo Sefolosha). It's stunning for two reasons really. The Rockets do a great job of turning Westbrook into a three-point shooter, which tends to yield good results as a strategy. Unfortunately Westbrook becomes a 42% three-point shooter against the Rockets. The Thunder excel everywhere on the court except for at the rim. The Thunder work off of Westbrook's improved shooting in matchups against the Rockets to exploit the midrange and paint game. The corner three stays at the team's average and the top of the key and wing threes all improve. The entire team feeds off the space created by having to honor Westbrook's shot and the Rockets need to key in on taking that away from him. Rim protection is a strong suit of this Rockets squad with Westbrook on the court they need to sacrifice a little bit of the interior to quit hemorrhaging points on the outside.
The Rockets key in on Kevin Durant when he comes to town like any sane team should. The interesting part about Kevin is that he's in that Kobe Bryant and Lebron James level of scorer where the question isn't whether or not he'll get his, it's just how you're going to manage it. Kevin's presence on the court shows a shot chart that's a bit shocking, honestly. Paint shots convert at a high rate but the rim and corner threes are keyed in on as areas of struggle. The midrange and wing/key threes are at average production. Kevin's overall stats show a jump in his steals and perfectly average (for him) production everywhere else. The interesting part about this bit is that there seems to be something about playing the Rockets that gets Kevin Durant's defensive mind working a little bit more and it results in the Rockets coughing the ball up quite a bit. The defensive scheming against Durant is about as good as you can hope for. The Rockets take away the high percentage corner three and guard the rim as well as you could hope for.
Keys to the Series
All right, if you slogged through my bumbling of shot charts and stats you're at the part where I just talk basketball again. Thank you for your patience.
First and foremost, the Rockets need to attack and be decisive with the ball. They're turning it over at an alarmingly high clip as a team. Our key performers (Shy of Chandler Parsons) are doing their part towards prevention but the Rockets really need to get a handle on the ball. The shot charts bear this out with relatively poor showings at the rim (Due to Ibaka's presence). The charts really bring to bear the fact the complaint about the Rockets failing to get decisive in the paint and panic passes in those situations. The remedy for this is simply to tell the team when you attack the rim you committed to attacking it. You're only to pass out if there's a wide-open three pointer and that's it.
Second, the Rockets need to find a way to amp up Asik's minutes without impacting his stamina. In order for the first key to be achieved you need the guy who gives you the best chance to accomplish that, right? That safety blanket is the big Turk. The Rockets are clearly more comfortable when they attack and can dump the ball to him or they can attack off his post presence. It's incredible because he was brought in for defense and he's far from polished but he's good enough that he enables the Rockets to do a lot of what they want to do and need to do to be successful.
Third, would somebody get a hand in that man's face? Russell Westbrook makes us look we're turtling on the court with his production. He loves to take shots away from Kevin Durant and the entire Thunder team sees a dip in conversion percentage when Westbrook isn't on the court, the Rockets should probably do a bit more to neutralize him to make the rest of the team not named Durant beat them.
Fourth, Kevin Durant will get his, keep defending the corner three and shadow a man hard on Westbrook at the line. They're not attacking the rim when Durant is on the floor, best to go ahead and cut off the biggest contributor outside of Durant. If the Rockets elect to go small with Asik as the only true big I can see this panning out. The best possible combination is Asik guarding the rim, Parsons on Durant, and Bev/Lin on Westbrook fighting over screens. Shot charts illustrate that they're scoring in the paint anyway, might as well deprive them of the three's they shoot better with.
This is going to be the most entertaining series of the playoffs (maybe even better than the Heat/Thunder finals we're going to get). You're going to see a new breed of playoff basketball. Both teams want to run, both teams take the most efficient shots in the game, and both teams have amazing chemistry amongst their parts. In two to three years this is going to be the best playoff matchup in basketball with both teams heralded as championship contenders (Yes, I'm calling it). I think the Rockets stand the best chance to take a game or two from the Thunder but let's not act like we're taking it in 7.
Thunder in 5
Author's Note: Any questions regarding standards at TDS should be emailed to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), the comments section is not the place to ask for further clarification of the minimal level of decorum we're asking for.