One of the key factors in playing successful "Moreyball" as we like to call it, is a potent and intimidating three-point attack that punishes opponents' defense for collapsing hard onto forays into the paint. If the team is knocking down triples with regularity, sending multiple defenders at James Harden or Dwight Howard becomes a "pick your poison" scenario.
Don't double or don't collapse, and the Rockets' two superstars will kill you all night long. If you send the double, there's always going to be someone open behind the line ready to make you pay. When the offense is truly humming, the defense chooses their manner of dispatch, and neither option is a pleasant one.
If the team is not connecting from deep, however, everything changes. Completely encircling The Beard's drives loses its consequences. A team doesn't pay for sending an extra man to disrupt Dwight in the post or prevent an easy roll to the bucket.
It's no wonder, then, that the Rockets 5-10 start to the season was predicated by unexpected struggles in three-point shooting. Sure, there were other issues, like effort, communication (especially defensively) and coaching upheaval, but everything was exacerbated by meat-locker cold shooting from behind the arc.
How cold did the Rockets start?
Through their first 15 games, the Rockets shot an NBA-low 29.6 percent from deep while shooting an NBA-high 32.5 attempts per game. The three-pointer was an also NBA-high 38.9 percent of all shots the team took. The Rockets were shooting the long ball, they just weren't knocking them down. The Moreyball concepts were still in place, the Rockets just weren't executing them.
The Rockets had just one respectable three-point shooter through the first 15 games, and it came from the unlikeliest of places. Terrence Jones knocked down 42.1 percent of his triples through those first few weeks, but the rest of the team was bleak from downtown (important to note: Jones didn't take a lot of those shots, either).
Jason Terry was at 33.3 percent. Marcus Thornton shot just 32.1 percent. Patrick Beverley was hitting 30.4 percent, Trevor Ariza 30.0 percent, James Harden 29.0 percent, Ty Lawson 25 percent, Corey Brewer 20.9 percent and K.J. McDaniels 16.7 percent.
The entire lineup was struggling. They were Arctic cold from top to bottom.
Since then, the Rockets have won 5 of 6 games to get right back into the playoff hunt. They now actually sit at 8th in the Western Conference hierarchy and are only 2.5 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for 3rd overall.
It's a pretty incredible place to be considering where the team was just two weeks ago. The West isn't quite the juggernaut we're used to seeing, and the Rockets have taken advantage to get themselves squarely in the thick of the race.
So what's changed?
Well, the effort has certainly been better. There's no doubting the team is playing harder, and they also seem to be having more fun.
The Rockets are also now healthier than they've been in basically a year. Since the 5-10 start, Patrick Beverley has returned from an ankle injury, Dwight Howard started playing back to backs, and Donatas Motiejunas hit the floor for the first time since last season's back surgery
Don't forget, Terrence Jones also missed five games earlier in the season with a large cut on his eye, and he's finally healthy too. The Rockets are all back on the court (save for rookie Sam Dekker, but he wasn't slated for much action this year anyway), and having the team healthy has added to the chemistry missing earlier in the season.
But the biggest difference is that the Rockets are now making shots, and specifically shots from deep. During the Rockets' current 5-of-6 run, the team is shooting 40.9 percent from downtown, which is good for second best in the league behind the Golden State Warriors during that time frame.
Lawson is shooting 62.5 percent, Beverley 57.1 percent, Terry 55.6 percent, Thornton 41.2 percent, and Ariza 40.6 percent. The ancillary pieces around Harden and Howard have begun to hit their shots, and the results are showing in the box score and in the win column.
Harden's also increased his three-point accuracy to 34.9 percent during that span and Brewer's jumped to 25 percent, although both could use yet another bump before we're satisfied with their shooting (particularly Brew. Come on, man).
While the entire team won't stay hot forever, now that the squad has settled down and into a groove after their disastrous start, there should be some guys stepping up each night in a more normalized fashion.
Jones is the only Rockets player to see his three-point percentage drop during the current run, though even his 33.3 percent over the 6-game stretch has been functional.
They're shooting better, but shooting less
One other unexpected occurrence in these last six games, however, is that the Rockets have dropped to 10th in three-point attempts during this time frame, with 26.5. They're also ninth in three-point frequency at 31.5 percent.
This shows that the Rockets are being smarter with the deep ball, while still keeping the downtown attack a significant part of their offensive repertoire. It's still Moreyball, just a little more restrained. The three-point shots are less frequent, but more efficient. It's a prudent approach, and it's been an effective one at getting the team out of its shooting slump.
As the Rockets move forward during this unexpectedly turbulent season, continuing to improve the defensive communication, the chemistry and the intensity are all of utmost importance, but this team's philosophy is designed to hurt you from deep, so as long as they're hitting their shots from downtown, the Rockets should find themselves in the thick of the playoff race from here on out.