The Rockets walked into the playoffs, anyone will admit that, with the best record in the NBA, but not, most will admit, as the best version of themselves.
A season that felt mostly like a coronation without a crown generated one large controversy on The Dreamshake. I’m not comparing it to the pointlessly vicious knife fight over Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas that left scars on the metaphorical landscape that linger to this day, but the “Rest versus Readiness” imbroglio had its moments.
Those moments are over. Whatever talking points that might remain are relegated to speculation. The playoffs, and perhaps the Rockets haven’t noticed this, are well begun. One team is already eliminated, one is on the brink, but fighting for its pride, others are locked in surprisingly even combat.
Then there are the Rockets. But which Rockets? In my estimation there were three distinct versions of the Rockets this season.
Peak Rockets - This is the version that answers “But the Rockets aren’t fun to watch! “ “Trolling for fouls!” Or, if the complainers were honest - “I just don’t like the Rockets, and I paper over that hate with a thin veneer of spurious rationality.”
The Peak Rockets move the ball around the horn from one corner to another at blazing speed. The attacks come at the basket not after stultifying pounding of the ball, but with a cruel enthusiasm for mayhem. There’s no answer for Peak Rockets offense. What many are calling The San Antonio Plan (though no San Antonio Plan can be complete without puffy tacos) is answered by Chris Paul, who will happily exist in the midrange and wreck the tactic.
Peak Rockets have all their defensive wings, and thus all three, Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and Tucker are able to switch out, keep fresh, and work in the right matchup. The loss of Luc Mbah a Moute is a significant one for the best version of the Rockets defense, which is top five when all the pieces are present.
Sometimes all a victory would take would be one quarter of Peak Rockets.
Peak Rockets are a delight. They can be beaten, but it isn’t easy.
Disjointed Rockets - This is a version of the Rockets we’ve seen only (I’d say) 15 out of a possible 85 meaningful contests. This version usually carries injuries, which keep it off peak form. Several shooters are slumping at once, and drives to the basket that are normally either layups, or fouls (because when you hit the shooter’s arm on a drive, it’s a foul, even if it annoys you). This version of the Rockets is capable of losing five in a row to (largely) subpar teams.
Defensive rotations are slow, and there’s no transition because the other team doesn’t miss. The Disjointed Rockets try to bear down on defense, only to be called for fouls. James Harden and Chris Paul press, and turn the ball over, or turn possessions into predictable, stoppable, ISOs. It can be ugly. We saw The Disjointed Rockets in Game Three in Minnesota. Give Minnesota credit for that, they were fired up for a home playoff game, and they couldn’t miss threes.
Disjointed Rockets can lead to real playoff disappointment.
Low-Speed Grinding Wheel - This is largely the team of the late win streak, and the horrible endless road trip/good opponent late-winter/early-spring. The Grinding Wheel, is in my opinion, a response to Disjointed Rockets. There’s an acceptance that the schedule is horrible, that all the pieces won’t be in place, that the thing to do is get through the games with as little damage as possible.
The ISO-heavy Rockets are the prime manifestation of the Grinding Wheel. It is brutal arithmetic at work. If an opponent is held in contact with a mix of Harden and Paul ISOs and open threes, faces the Rockets defense for long enough, they’ll be abraded into nothingness. The Rockets aren’t moving fast, they aren’t flying around. They’re just grinding, and their talent and commitment wins out, and wins ugly.
The Low-Speed Grinding Wheel should be a regular season device, only.
Now we are (again, wake up please Rockets) into the NBA’s Second Season, so we now see:
Playoff Rockets - Thus far I think we saw the Grinding Wheel in the first two games. It was enough, coupled with one star turn each from Harden and Paul, to win two games at home. It wasn’t enough in the supercharged/desperate atmosphere of the Target Center on Saturday, and the Rockets got disjointed in the middle of the third quarter.
Comments from Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul seem to indicate the Rockets are aware of their problems, and lack of energy to match Minnesota. If anyone should have energy it should be the Rockets, with their reasonable playing times compared to the Timberwolves. Also, the loss brought a change in tone from the first two games instead of (roughly) “Well, we didn’t play well, but fine, we won. No worries.” to “We have to play better, we have to turn it up.”
I think the Rockets do turn it up, I think Minnesota goes hunting for the miracle three ball and it isn’t there, and Houston wins a closely contested game four.
Who Wins Game Four?
This poll is closed
Rockets, by a lot.
Rockets, by a little.
Timberwolves, by a little.
TWolves. Um, WTF Rose?
There are no winners if there are no Mavericks in Three.