The second round of the NBA playoffs returns to Houston tonight. The L.A. Clippers have a 3 - 1 lead when game five tips of at 8:30 p.m. (Central).
Tonight's game is either the swan song of a team who exceeded regular season expectations behind James Harden's MVP caliber season -- or -- its a defiant reversal of momentum that currently has the Clippers catapulted towards the Western Conference Finals.
Simply put, it's the end of the line or the start of something special. For the Rockets to stave off elimination and live to fight a game six in Los Angeles here's the trends they're going to have to reverse:
- First Half Defense: The Rockets are surrendering 60 points in the first half of these contests. It's an unacceptable trend that leaves them playing from behind. When the Rockets are playing from behind their offense transitions to a Atkins diet of three point shooting, which has been dismal at best.
- Foul Trouble: There's certainly room for the referees to improve in this series, but the Rockets have to make every effort to keep James Harden and Dwight Howard out of foul trouble. When Dwight Howard goes to the bench the Rockets defense dissolves and DeAndre Jordan turns into an offensive option (paired with Chris Paul) who can only be slowed by hacking, not stopped in the paint.
- Runs: Critics of the NBA generally complain that there's 48 minutes of basketball, but only the final three minutes matter. This adage could easily be applied to the Rockets-Clippers series, with the slight modification that reads "only three minutes of these games matter." In games three and four the Rockets have succumbed to three on-court minutes of total ineptitude exploited by the Clippers offense and superior personnel sets. The Rockets don't have to lead from the opening tip to the end of the game, but they have to put forward a consistent effort that avoids the catastrophic second quarter in game three or third quarter in game four. Simply put, the Rockets have to put themselves in a position to make the final three minutes of the game matter.
- Effort: The Rockets have laid down when they've fallen behind in this series. The Clippers 20 point leads and their three point shooting streaks have come at the same time the referees have donned red and white uniforms. To this point the Rockets response to being dealt that deck of cards has been to fold. If the Rockets keep the current mentality that the deck is stacked against them we're in for another long night.
With a win tonight the Rockets can add a bit of intrigue to a series that has been widely panned to this point. The way this series has gone Rockets fans will know by the third quarter if the team has the fight in it to pull off a victory.
If there was ever a time for a vintage James Harden performance, tonight is the night.