This one is tough to write about. This game illuminates both a systemic problem with the NBA, and a systemic problem with the Houston Rockets, in stark relief.
The Los Angeles Lakers don’t figure into either issue. They’re more or less window dressing here.
The first problem is how the Rockets respond to adversity. How they can’t seem to make open shots to pull ahead, and seal games. How they keep trying the thing that isn’t working, hoping it will start working again, and lose leads, thereby.
I’m not the only one to say this, but the Rockets seem to be the team that’s least correlated with their opponent’s efforts in any result. What I mean by that is, if the Rockets shoot well, they more or less can’t be beaten. It almost doesn’t matter who the opponent is, because only one or two opponents can match that scoring output when its going well.
But second half leads evaporating into a morass of 14, 16, 18, whatever point quarters against good opposition is a problem the Rockets have evidenced all season. A first half full of good ideas, and clever play, even a big playing at PF(!), turned into the same old dribble ISO slog. The problem was compounded by, yet again, none of the Rockets supporting cast being able to hit an open shot.
It’s a vicious circle. Harden gets doubled, passes out, and someone, Tucker, Green, whomever, clanks a wide open three. So Harden decides to shoot out of that contested situation, because he can’t rely on his teammates. Sometimes he makes those shots, sometimes he misses.
Who is to blame? Honestly, it’s the coaches.
They have to offer, and install, an alternative to a system that isn’t working, for the times it breaks down. Run the double high screen. It worked in the first half. Run a staggered screen for Harden to shoot. Run something. 32-26-32-16 - that is not a winning per quarter scoreline, and the Rockets need to have a better answer to pressure situations. Instead Rockets leadership seems willing to die for their philosophy, rather than alter it in any respect.
The fact that this game became a pressure situation, however, could also be a systemic NBA problem. When the referee for tonight, Scott Foster, was announced, I expected a Rockets loss. A loss against a team the Rockets had beaten in the three previous meetings. Why the pessimism?
Scott Foster is, by any measure, the Rockets toughest opponent of the past two seasons. Last season the Rockets lost six total playoff games. Foster reffed three of them, two in the GS series. The Rockets have beaten GS more than any other team in the past two seasons, but the Rockets haven’t won a game with Foster involved at any point before, possibly, 2016.
Also, from what I can tell, this season, the Rockets may have drawn refs with more Rockets losses associated with them than average, but none where the Rockets never win a game with that single official involved. Except Foster.
James Harden hasn’t been ejected on fouls all season. He was tonight. As was Chris Paul. Another highly unusual outcome, with a statistically unlikely referee.
In the past two seasons the Rockets have played in 28 playoff games. Scott Foster has reffed 6 of those contests, or roughly 21%. The Rockets have won none of those games. In the past two seasons the Rockets have lost a total of 11 playoff games. Foster was therefore ref for 55% of Rockets playoff losses, and 0% of their playoff wins, despite reffing 21% of total games. In series where the Rockets were eliminated he reffed 4 of 13 games played, two in each series, and of course the Rockets lost all four of those games. That’s 50% of all elimination series losses. No other ref has appeared as lead ref in more than two Rocket playoff losses in those two seasons in all playoff series. No doubt it’s just a coincidence.
And let’s add this from the estimable Tim MacMahon, who is covering the Rockets more fairly than I’d have ever expected from a North Texas boy.
Per @ESPNStatsInfo, Scott Foster called 18 fouls (personal or technical) on Thursday -- 12 against the Rockets, six against the Lakers. Seven of the fouls Foster called against the Rockets came in the fourth quarter, including the T he called on Chris Paul.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) February 22, 2019
Free throws in final 20 minutes: Lakers 17, Rockets 0— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) February 22, 2019
Credit to the Lakers, their meta strategy paid off. They finally got a win against the Rockets.
Their rickety narrative has been saved for one more day.
I don’t even know what to ask.
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