The Houston Rockets may have saved their season last night, beating the Clippers 115-109, but as the first half of last night's Game 2 in the Western Conference Semifinal series drew to a close, fans seemed to be in for more of the same disappointment felt after the disaster that was Game 1.
Blake Griffin had dropped in 26 points through two quarters, to James Harden's lowly 12. The Rockets had coughed up an 11-point lead to go to the half down 9. Dwight Howard once again looked like the only Rocket excited about being on the court and Houston still could not manage to take advantage of a Clippers team missing their best player in Chris Paul.
And then the second half happened.
James Harden became James Harden (we missed you!) going on to score 20 in the last two quarters and Rockets coach Kevin McHale made some brilliant adjustments to keep Blake Griffin from continuing his evisceration of the post. Houston went on to grab the lead with 10:26 left in the fourth quarter and never looked back.
While the victory was no doubt sweet after a terrible first showing, the biggest question this game begged is, "Did this win come from a sustainable style of play?" and the answer to that question is "Absolutely not."
While McHale's answer for Griffin in the second half was indeed a fantastic adjustment, it's important to put last night's win in the context of the series. Game 3 sees Houston returning to Los Angeles and playing in a hostile environment, which would be bad enough if it weren't for the imminent return of the best point guard in the league.
So how does Houston keep this mojo-train rolling through Los Angeles? There are a few simple keys for sustainability.
The first is three-point shooting.
This Rockets team is built around the philosophies of Moreyball. That means shooting tons of threes and driving to the paint to get the layup/dunk or foul shots. In the first game of the series, the Rockets shot the deep ball poorly, going 11-33 from the arc. In Game 2 it got significantly worse. The Rockets shot 5-26 for a 3-point field goal percentage of 19.2 percent.
While 19.2 percent was good enough to get it done against a team that has Austin Rivers running the point, that will definitely not be the case once Chris Paul hops into the drivers seat and kicks the Clippers into top gear.
The spacing that a consistent three-ball creates is vital for players like James Harden and Corey Brewer, who find their offensive game by pulling the defense up tight against the arc and then slicing through the paint to create looks. It's also a helpful equalizer when an opposing team's post-defense is disrupting the paint like DeAndre Jordan has so far this series.
Another key to sustainability for the Rockets is reducing turnovers. In the regular season, the Rockets ranked 27th in total turnovers and the post season haven't seen any significant improvement on that.
While the turnovers in game one of the series were ridiculous even by Houston's standards (24) the improvement was visible in game two in which they managed to turn it over only 14 times. Los Angeles isn't going cough the ball up once CP3 is back and if Houston allows Los Angeles' defense to generate loads of offense, this series could get out of hand in a hurry. Harden was the biggest offender last night, turning it over seven times. That can't happen in the coming games if the Rockets want a serious chance at winning.
Lastly, the Rockets need to focus on the second facet of Moreyball and every fan's favorite part of the game, the free throws! Woo Woo!
In Game 1, Houston only managed 24 trips to the line and were able to convert 15 of those points. Game 2 saw a tremendous upswing in foul shots. Houston went to the line a ridiculous 64 times and converted 42 of those points. If you're looking for an explanation of how the Rockets survived a 5-26 shooting night from downtown, look no further.
James Harden makes his bacon at the line and if he isn't playing aggressive and getting foul shots, then the rest of his game doesn't come easily. He instills a fear in the opposing defense with his wild flailing and sneaky rip-throughs that's impossible to recreate when he's playing passively and settling for bad shots.
Harden must continue to go at Jordan early in games if he wants to set a pace for Houston, offensively. Last night's early foul trouble for DJ opened up the floor for the Rockets and as a result, they posted an impressive 35-point quarter. Houston will need more of the same going forward if they want to stay alive in the post season.