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Rockets must fix their approach before they try again

Mike D’Antoni created a heavenly system for the Rockets until those pesky Lakers came around and made it hell.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Watching James Harden and Co. run into mountain-sized players problems in their second-round matchup against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers was deterring, to say the least.

Domination is not how I’d describe that series, but when you lose in five games, a gentleman’s sweep, there isn’t much else you can say. There is potential within the franchise next season, but for the Rockets to look sharp, they must spend this off-season ironing out their wrinkles.

It all starts with figuring out what to do with small-ball, the system that limited them in the playoffs but could be vital to next year’s championship aspirations.

Honey, they shrunk the Rockets

Lacking in size is detrimental to the confidence of many men for various reasons, but back in February, The Houston Rockets embraced that description after making moves to pursue it.

With the trade deadline on the horizon, the front office pulled the trigger on a four-team deal that sent away an injured Clint Capela to Atlanta and brought in Robert Covington from Minnesota. Houston also had acquired Jordan Bell, who seemed like he’d be exactly what they needed off the bench, but they quickly traded him away to Memphis.

Heading into their matchup with the Lakers two days later, the Rockets did not have a player in the starting lineup that was taller than 6’6. The Lakers had three. Regardless of height or length, the Rockets strolled into Staples Center, the land where giants reside, and left with a 121-111 victory after a scorching performance from Russell Westbrook, as he poured in 41 points.

Up until the NBA’s hiatus, we watched as the Rockets began to further understand how to get the most out of their spacing by distancing (not gonna say it) themselves and setting a series of screens to get the matchups they wanted as Harden directed traffic from a top of the key. Once that switch came, defenders had to decide whether to help out their teammate, who was at risk of getting cooked due to the mismatch that the Rockets forced, or to stay home and not allow a shooter to be left wide open.

On the defensive end, the Rockets were forced to be 110% engaged. They were much smaller than every team in the league, which meant easy baskets if they had sloppy rotations, bad reads, failed communication, or just lackluster effort.

In the regular season, their defense was average at best, ranking 15th in the league. However, the playoffs were different. Houston honed a 106.8 defensive rating, which currently ranks third in the playoffs; the only two teams ahead of them are the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics.

Former Head Coach Mike D’Antoni created a heavenly system for the Rockets until those pesky Lakers came back around and made it hell.

What went wrong?

Remember when I mentioned that the Rockets traded away Jordan Bell? Here is why I think he could have helped drastically.

After winning Game 1 of the second round against the Lakers, Frank Vogel put on his lab coat and conjured up a strategy that would limit how effective Harden and Westbrook could be.

Vogel had his team key in on James Harden, sending double teams at him every time he tried to make a move or have a screen set for him, but since the Beard is a skilled passer, the Lakers sat in a 3-2 zone so that they could clog the passing lanes and cover every perimeter threat, leaving Westbrook open beyond the arc. Westbrook is a gifted scorer, but the biggest hole in his game is his inability to consistently hit shots from three-point range, so he had to decide whether to settle for a shot the Lakers want him to shoot or attack the basket as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis lingered. This adjustment is what allowed L. A to advance to the Conference Finals.

This is where Jordan Bell comes in. When you have a constant threat to catch lobs, it makes it extremely hard to play a zone when a team attacks the basket. In this series, AD would either have had to commit to contesting shots or stay down low and watch for the lob. Having an athletic big would have given Westbrook more room to work like we have seen from Harden and Capela many, many times.

Moving Forward

Many people believe that Houston should do away with playing small, I couldn’t disagree more. Why rid yourself of a system that gives the league headaches?

The speed and uniqueness on both the offensive and defensive end is so daunting that after Game 1 of the semi-finals, LeBron compared them to Super Bowl champions.

So instead of moving on from being small, the Rockets should think bigger by using small-ball as a weapon rather than limiting the team to always being small.

The Rockets have the opportunity to have a balanced attack, and it starts with adding an athletic big to their rotation, ideally, one that is efficient around the rim, can sink free throws, and has the lateral quickness to fit into their “switch everything” defensive scheme while also, of course, protecting the rim. This would allow them to flip between their pace and space offense from last season and a pick-and-roll offense.

In the playoffs, you have to be able to make adjustments, and adding size always makes that easier. Throw that in with a player that can create scoring opportunities off the bench along with a team-wide revival of the mid-range jump shot, and they could be as tough an out as ever during the Harden era.

The famous saying goes “if at first you don't succeed, try again.” While it’s definitely motivating, it lacks realism. I would have said “if at first you don't succeed, fix your approach before you try again.” Houston must do the latter.


How would you like to see the Rockets move forward?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    No more playing small.
    (56 votes)
  • 73%
    Keep playing small but add height to balance it out.
    (276 votes)
  • 11%
    I don’t know just don't trade The Beard!
    (43 votes)
375 votes total Vote Now