The Houston Rockets have nothing left to play for. With the top seed in the Western Conference on total lockdown and the best record in the NBA just about clinched (the Rockets need one more win or a Raptors loss to assure it), Houston is starting to give some much-needed rest to their main players.
James Harden and Clint Capela sat out this week’s win over the Chicago Bulls, and Chris Paul, Nene, and Eric Gordon took the night off in last night’s come-from-behind victory over the Phoenix Suns. And as we head down the final stretch of the regular season, I fully expect these guys to get even more nights off to keep them healthy for a potential championship run. That’s the first thing resting guys does.
The second thing it does is often overlooked, but perhaps just as important: it helps some of the other rotation players get some serious court time and not only get into rhythm, but also get into the habit of spearheading a Rockets win. Come playoff time, Houston is going to need all of their hands on deck, because while Harden, Paul, Gordon, and Capela are obviously the guys who stir the Rockets’ drink, history tells us close playoff games are often decided by the secondary players.
The 1994 Rockets were led by Hakeem Olajuwon, but they don’t win that title without some huge shots by Sam Cassell off the bench. Mario Elie and Carl Herrera were also huge contributors, and the Big Shot Bob phenomenon was also born with Robert Horry’s clutch shooting.
The 1995 team got surprising defensive contributions from Chucky Brown and Charles Jones, along with the aforementioned Cassell, Ellie, and Horry complementing Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
And it’s shown up time again in the years since, from J.R. Smith to Andre Iguodala to Boris Diaw to Mike Miller to Derek Fisher and many others. It’s a virtual certainty that if the Rockets are going to win a title, they’re going to need someone slightly under the radar, someone a little unexpected to step up when it matters most.
The good news is that we got some of that in last night’s dramatic win against Phoenix. Gerald Green hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer obviously stands out as the play of the night, and he finished with 15 points in getting the start, but it doesn’t end there.
Joe Johnson had his best game since donning Rockets red as well. Iso Joe played 21 minutes off the bench and had a robust stat line of 16 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and a block. He also played key minutes down the stretch and was a main cog in the Houston comeback.
Tarik Black even showed well in limited minutes, grabbing 3 rebounds and blocking a shot in 10 minutes of time. With Brandan Wright not returning this season and released, Black will need to be ready if called upon during the playoffs.
Other ancillary players will have a key role in Houston’s postseason fate as well. Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker have been doing it all season, especially on the defensive end, but you know one of them (or both) is going to have to nail a big three or two during the playoffs if Houston is to win a title. Tucker drained five of them last night, his most as a Rocket.
With as good as his defense has been — the Rockets are third in the league in defensive rating since he entered the starting lineup and have a 26-2 record in that time, according to the Houston Chronicle — if he can stay hot and in rhythm with his shot through the end of the season and into the playoffs, the Rockets are going to be mighty hard to beat.
So as we get through these last six games before the playoffs begin, be thankful Houston has the opportunity to get their big name players a little rest. It’s not only going to benefit the guys who are resting, but it will also go a long way to keeping the other rotation players involved and in rhythm. If they’re going to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Houston for the first time in over two decades, one or more of the ancillary players will need to hit some clutch shots in order to do it.