Since the start of the New Year, the Houston Rockets have posted the best record in the NBA. Their offense has been on fire, thanks in large part to the resurgence of Dwight Howard, as well as James Harden, who, after a slow, injury-ridden start, seems to have finally found his rhythm. They’re even better on the defensive end, locking teams down on a nightly basis and turning missed shots into easy buckets. And with all of that success, they now find themselves with the third best record in the Western Conference, trailing the Southwest Division-leading Spurs for the second seed by only three games.
But, despite their growth, there is still something missing.
While the Oklahoma City Thunder welcome their three-time all-star, Russell Westbrook, back and the Miami Heat regain their laser-beam focus, the Rockets continue to chug along unlike your prototypical championship-caliber team. They still go through lulls on both ends of the floor, and it’s hard to look past Harden’s shoddy defense. There are also questions about whether or not Terrence Jones gives them a good enough option at the power forward position. To add to that, Jeremy Lin continues to struggle off the bench, and the Rockets rank near the bottom of the league in bench scoring. But those factors haven’t mattered so much in 2014, since they’ve recorded 20 wins to just six loses.
However, there is one prevalent issue: the style in which they play tends not to be conducive to playoff success. Nearly 40 percent of their offense this season has come in transition or from spot-up jumpers. In other words, they run, they gun, they run a little more, they gun a little more, and they put points up on the board. Come playoff-time, the game slows down, each possession is a grudge match, and easy opportunities are hard to come by.
Leaking out on the fast-break and wide-open threes aren’t expected. Instead, they’re regarded as luxuries. And then, there’s the isolations. 10.1 percent of the Rockets’ sets have come from isolations this season, one of basketball’s least efficient plays, and the leading man in that category is James Harden.
With 24.5 points per game, he trails only Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Love in scoring this season, but has been given the dreaded label of ball stopper (and not in the defensive sense, obviously). When Harden sat out a few games earlier in the season as a result of an injury, Chandler Parsons even said the Rockets have a “more balanced attack” when he’s not in the lineup. Reason being: “We run out sets and get the best shot available. When he’s not there, we don’t go one-on-one as much.”
There’s no doubt that for the Rockets to make a deep post-season run, they’ll need Harden to play at his best. However, the way in which they utilize him, especially down the stretch in tight games, is concerning. Take their matchup against the Golden State Warriors in February this year.