It's not a fun time to be a Rockets fan right now.
After a regular season that surpassed expectations and a gentleman's sweep in the first round, expectations for this team were as high as they'd been all year heading into their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Clippers. L.A. was coming out of a seven-game war with the San Antonio Spurs. What a difference four games make.
The Rockets are getting their butts whooped. They're losing so badly they're calling the direction of the franchise into question. They've been looking for someone, anyone, to step up. So whose failure to do so is the worst, and the most damaging?
First off, Dwight Howard isn't on the list, because he spent a good part of this series playing very well, and without him the Rockets might have been swept. Kevin McHale is not on this list because he's not a player, even though this series is undoing much of the goodwill his improved coaching from the regular season bought him with fans and with GM Daryl Morey. James Harden is not on this list because even though he's been disappointing, he's still averaging 24 points and 9 assists. HE IS NOT THE PROBLEM.
That would be these guys:
3. Terrence Jones
After all the encouraging signs that T-Jones displayed during his brief regular season as a stronger player who attacked the basket with confidence, he's regressed right in front of our eyes. Look at his shot chart from the regular season:
Not a world-beater, and if he was on a different team, he'd be taking far more mid-range shots (that would be well suited to his game), but combined with his bounce on defense (he averaged nearly 2 blocks a game) and his surprising three-point range, a solid contributor. Going up against the Clippers' front line, however, has been a different story:
That 48 percent number from around the rim doesn't even do his futility justice. His penetrations have lacked the fluidity he showed during the regular season, and he passes very rarely out of the paint. He puts his head down and tries to bull over two larger players in DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, and even if he gets a free look (or a tap-in on a teammate's miss), he's blowing lots of layups. It's groan-inducing, because he's gotten some good shots, but his conversion rate is abysmal. And his game outside the restricted area has vanished.
We won't spend much time on his defense against Blake Griffin, because he hasn't done much defending. Blake, like LaMarcus Aldridge last year, has eaten him up.
2. Corey Brewer
This is incredibly painful, because Corey has brought us so much joy this year, and was a crucial part of the Rockets' run to the second round. But he laid a wet fart in Game 4, and his performance in the three previous games wasn't much better. After averaging 14 points in the first round, he's down to 8 in the second, on only 35 percent shooting. He's made exactly one three-pointer in this series, and has been on the floor for much of the third quarters that have seen the Clippers blow the Rockets out of the gym.
His defense has been in line with the rest of Houston, which is to say terrible. He actually sports the worst Net Rating of any Rocket over the past two games, a mind-boggling -42.8. (Terrence Jones is second, and the number 1 player is fourth.)
With a player who creates as much chaos as Brewer, you always have to take the lapses of focus as part of the deal to get the crazy hustle plays, but he has not shown the ability to increase his focus as games have gotten away. But he's got nothing on the biggest disappearing act.
1. Josh Smith
6 points per game. 27 percent shooting. More dumb turnovers, fewer genius passing. Lackadaisical defense. All the redemption narratives that accompanied Smoove's incredible series against Dallas came crashing down, and amidst the rubble was only the player that got cut by the Detroit Pistons and ridiculed by the basketball Internet.
The offensive numbers are ghastly, but honestly they don't really matter. If Smith had shown the ability to slow down Blake, he would have been able to stay on the court for longer than 18 minutes a game and not force McHale to go small for suicidally long stretches (with the help of T-Jones' inadequacy). Physically, Smoove matches up better with Blake than any other Rocket (he only gives up an inch and twenty pounds), and he was a defensive ace in the regular season, guarding the opponents' best big when Dwight Howard was out. So why couldn't he do anything to bother Blake?
Honestly, I have no clue. No one can prevent Blake from doing it all, but if he had been able to at least slow down Blake's post game, the Rockets wouldn't have had to double the Clippers' forward so much and stay home on shooters.
The offense? I lied, it matters. He always goes hot and cold from three, but it's been particularly brutal to see he and Brewer both have the same four-game cold spell. And he's been even worse than Terrence Jones in terms of finishing at the rim:
The Clippers have done masterful jobs at bothering the Rockets' two biggest stars and reducing their impact, and I'd say that Smith, when playing well, is easily the third best player. His complete implosion in this series has been the single biggest factor (on the Rockets' end) in explaining the Rockets' goose egg in the second round.
The series is not over, no matter how it feels now. A hot shooting night from Brewer and/or Smoove could be enough to force a Game 6, especially if they combine it with improved defense. But the way it's been going, that doesn't look especially likely.