The Rockets have been a different team since the start of December. After an ugly 7-11 beginning to the year, the Rockets have gone 12-8 since Dec. 1 to stand at an even 19-19 heading into tonight's game with the Memphis Grizzlies.
.500 ball isn't what anyone envisioned for this Rockets squad, but extrapolate that 12-8 record since December over a full NBA season, and suddenly you're looking at a 49-33 team. Still not the type of group we envisioned, but the gap between expectations and reality looks significantly smaller.
Surprisingly, one of the keys to the Houston turnaround has been an increasingly effective inside-out game, a hardwood concept thought to be slowly going the way of the Dodo as the league continues to emphasize perimeter play both in its rule book and in its team-building talks.
The concept of the inside-out game is simple. If you can attack a team in the paint with your front court, it should theoretically open up space for your guards to knock down threes (or drive).
The pick and roll, alley-oop, the high-post flex, and the post-up all have a place in a diverse inside attack. The important part is establishing the big man's presence. It forces defenders to adjust.
On a cramped basketball court, space is everything. The broad essence of the age-old philosophy is that even if the mere threat of what a center or forward can do scoring inside forces a defender to sag an extra step or two, you're suddenly creating additional room outside to operate. That step or two can often be the difference between winning and losing.
Eventually, after you cash a few outside bombs, the defenders drift back outside, which allows a reversion back to punishing them inside. The two threats play off of one another in a synergistic fashion and voila! You have complete inside-out offensive attack.
The new rules for defending and a lack of skilled big men have minimized this classic approach, but as the Rockets have slowly rediscovered that they have one of the best centers in the league on their roster, we've seen that the inside-out game can still be used effectively.
In fact, its successful reincorporation into the Houston offensive repertoire may be one of the biggest reasons for the Rockets' turnaround.
After shooting just 30.9 percent from deep through November, the Rockets are now shooting 38.9 percent from three since December 1st, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. If you ask Corey Brewer, there's a big reason for that, as he told Feigen:
"We get a lot better looks. When Dwight gets going, we all get going. James is going to do his thing no matter what. We got to get Dwight involved. Dwight's been involved (lately). James has been distributing the ball really well. It makes it a lot easier."
Backing up Brewer's observation, Dwight Howard has increased his scoring output from 13.2 points per game before Dec. 1 to 14.8 points per game after. His field goal percentage has also increased, as he shot 58.6 percent for the first month of the season and has shot 63.8 percent since.
As the month of December dragged along, the Rockets continued to get better at the inside-out attack. Since Christmas, Houston has shot 41.5 percent from deep, which is good for third in the NBA over that time frame, according to Jeff Caplan of Fox Sports.
During that same after-Christmas period, Dwight Howard has averaged 18.3 points per game on 70.1 percent shooting, his best stretch of ball of the season, especially from an offensive standpoint. He's also taking an additional two shots per game, showing the Rockets' recommitment to getting him the ball where he can be effective.
The rest of the Rockets realize that when they involve Howard in the offense, he becomes fully engaged. And when he's fully engaged, they're a better team. Everyone gets better shots.
Houston averaged just 101.8 points per game through November, and they've upped that to 105.9 per game since then. It's this renewed focus on getting everyone involved, especially Howard, that's helped pay those dividends of open shots. J.B. Bickerstaff told Feigen:
"We've been working on it. I think we created some easier opportunities for guys because we're moving the ball a little bit more. We're doing the small things that make guys better shooters."
"It's a confidence thing... We're getting wide open shots right now. James is making the right plays, Dwight is playing great. When those guys get us such wide open shots, we just have to knock them down."
If they can keep knocking them down, the Rockets just might shoot themselves right back into this thing. If they do, they'd have a renewed focus on an inside-out approach to thank.