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Why Houston’s James Harden Isolations Can Be A Problem In The Playoffs

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.

[RELATED: James Harden Owned February & You Probably Didn’t Even Notice]

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.

Click to find out how and why Harden’s isolations can hurt Houston in the playoffs…

On the second night of a back-to-back, the Rockets struggled scoring the ball, connecting on 36.6 percent of their shots. Luckily for them, Harden got it rolling in the second-half and single-handedly willed his team back by making tough shot after tough shot. But after he exchanged cold-blooded shots to close the game with Stephen Curry, the fans at Oracle Arena were treated to an extra period, and in those final five minutes, the Rockets were like a deer in headlights.

[RELATED: Breaking Down Why Houston Will Make The NBA Finals]

Unlike in the fourth quarter, Harden didn’t achieve the same success isolating at the top of the key, and scored just four points on 1-for-3 shooting. But more importantly, the Rockets were out of whack offensively and ended up losing the game, 102-99. There were many plays – like the one below – where Harden’s teammates found themselves floating around the perimeter, with all eyes on their star. But rather than take advantage of that attention, the plays didn’t end well.

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That wasn’t just a one-off. Rather, it’s something that has plagued the Rockets all season long, as you’ll see in the video below. It even happened on Tuesday night, when the Rockets crept out of the Toyota Center with a three-point victory against the Miami Heat. In the final four minutes of the game, with a seven-point lead in hand, Harden did a good job of milking the clock. But he didn’t get quality shots every time down the floor, instead perferring to settle for step-back jumpers or forcing his teammates into taking tough shots at the end of the shot clock. Miami responded on the other end of the court, the Rockets continued to struggle while coming close to blowing their lead.

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Tooled with the best shooting guard and center in the league, as well as a handful of formidable roles players, this Houston Rockets squad has the makeup to compete with the best teams in the NBA. As the season wears on, there’s no doubt they have improved. Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard have developed some nice chemistry, Patrick Beverley continues to frustrate every guard in the league with his dog yard defense and James Harden is James Harden again.

But in the midst of all those improvements has been something holding them back like a nagging headache. The offense isn’t as crisp as it should be. Despite yielding similar points per possession as when they isolate, feeding Howard in the post tends to lead to good things; better things. While it doesn’t always end up in a made shot or free throws, it gets the ball moving with people cutting to get the defense to rotate, thus creating more good looks at the basket. When Harden stands at the top of the key with the ball in his hands, everyone watches, waiting for him to work his magic. Problem is, that magic only works 35.1 percent of the time, per Synergy.

It’s no secret that when James Harden and Dwight Howard play well, so do the Rockets. They demand so much attention on a nightly basis, it frees up the rest of their teammates. And sometimes, it’s like poetry in motion. When Howard finds Parsons on a backdoor cut or Harden finds Howard for an alley-oop off a high pick-and-roll, you can’t help but marvel at their potential and offensive prowess. When clicking on all cylinders, they can’t be stopped. They’ve got too much fire power for most teams. But it’s when they rely too heavily on one player or revert back to their old ways that their offense breaks down. And it’s in their match-ups against the best teams in the league when that tends to happen. According to ESPN, five of their six losses in 2014 have come against the top nine teams in the Western Conference – the same ones they’ll be facing in the postseason.

There is something special brewing in Houston and there’s plenty to be excited about. It certainly is a “New Age” and they seem to be on the cusp of something great. But calling them championship contenders this season seems a little premature. There are still a lot of creases that need to be ironed out, and it starts with James Harden.

What do you think?

Scott Rafferty writes for ESPN TrueHoop Networks’ Hardwood Paroxysm and SB Nation’s Ridiculous Upside.

Follow Scott on Twitter at @crabdribbles.

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