Why Jeremy Lin, James Harden and the Houston Rockets Need to Reach the Sixth NBA Playoff Seed
This season has marked a huge turnaround in Houston Rockets basketball, with the fruits of the Rockets' shrewd offseason moves paying huge dividends in making the Rockets respectable again.
Coming off three losing seasons in a row, the Rockets completely retooled their team, trading for Sixth Man of the Year-turned-All-Star James Harden, signing young and explosive Jeremy Lin in free agency, and nabbing defensive and rebounding stalwart Omer Asik on the free market to build the core of what would be one of the league's most explosive offenses.
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The Rockets are tied with Oklahoma City for first in the NBA in team scoring, averaging 106.4 points per game. On offense, Houston, the youngest team in the NBA at an average of 24.3 years old, is able to outrun opponents on a nightly basis. On the long ball, in particular, the Rockets have been very proficient, nailing 10.7 threes per game, tied for first in the league with New York.
All of these have led the Rockets to their impressive turnaround season as they sport a 37-31 record for the No.7 seed in the playoffs heading into Friday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yet despite their success and overwhelming offensive firepower, the Rockets have good reason to want to try and pick up the pace in the last remaining month of regular season action before the playoffs. And it all has to do with their potential playoff opponents.
If the season were to end today, the Rockets would be matched up with the No.2 seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. And that match-up would not suit the Rockets at all.
In their three meetings this season, the Thunder blew out Houston in their first two contests soundly (120-98 and 124-94) while the Rockets just barely took the third game against OKC 122-119 on Feb. 20. Against a team with an offense just as fast and high-scoring as their own, Houston has had trouble on defense containing the high-scoring Thunder, who have a better discipline on defense (allowing only 97.3 points to opponents) while Harden had a hard time shooting against his ex-team before he burst out with a 46-point night against OKC in February. For the most part, OKC knew they had to close off the paint and limit Houston to shooting from the outside, a strategy that worked well as the Rockets has issues trying to get their shooting down pat without being able to drive.
In addition, OKC, boasting two dynamic All-Star scorers in Russell Westbrook and the ever-lethal Kevin Durant, have been playoff tested, coming off an NBA Finals loss last season against the Heat and motivated to return to the Finals this season with another chance to win a ring. All in all, those are factors that add up to a Thunder team that the Rockets would do well to avoid in the first round.
If they slide further down, they would have to play the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has beaten Harden, Lin and company all three times during the regular season. Granted, they have been close match-ups, pitting Houston's youth and speed against the older San Antonio Spurs (average age 27.9 years old, seventh oldest team in the NBA). However, the Spurs' precision passing and high-scoring offense had a way of racking up points consistently against Houston that the Rockets--whose defense is second worst in the NBA, allowing 103.1 points per game--simply couldn't overtake.
The bottom line is, they don't fare well against teams that can score high and can defend fairly well, both of which the Thunder and Spurs are.
Enter the third-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
So far, the Rockets and Grizzlies have split their season series against them, and the two teams have two more games to play. It's not a huge body of work to go on. And yet, it seems to be the match-up that favors the Rockets best.
Consider the Rockets' blowout win against Memphis on Dec. 22, a 121-96 shellacking of the Grizzlies. In that game, the Rockets basically ran the Grizzlies ragged. Memphis is no joke, allowing the fewest points of any NBA team, a mere 89.2 points per game. They love to pound the ball inside and get easy layups, and they thrive on their physical brand of defense. Coach Kevin McHale's solution? Have his young Rockets team sprint down the court faster than the Grizzlies could set up their defense. By controlling the tempo of the game, the Rockets were able to overcome the usual smothering "D' of the Rockets and turn it into a steamrolling win.
The same strategy was employed against Chicago, another defensively sound team, in a Christmas Day Rockets win against them. Houston controlled the speed of the game with their up-tempo style and shot well against the Bulls in a 120-97 blowout on the road to hand the Bulls one of their worst defeats of the season.
Over a seven-game series, endurance favors the Rockets, who have speed and youth on their side. Most such contests always favor the young and more athletic teams. As good as Memphis is, asking them to keep pace with the track-and-field style running of the Rockets for a seven-game series is an awful lot to ask, even though the Grizzlies are on average only 25.8 years old, the eighth youngest NBA team. Not to mention, the Grizzlies don't really score a heck of a lot. Unlike the Thunder and Spurs, Memphis' 93.4 points is the fifth lowest scoring total in the NBA. They don't have a Durant or Westbrook or Tony Parker or Tim Duncan-caliber offensive threat on offense that can change the tempo of the game. The only player that even resembled such a threat, Rudy Gay, was traded from Memphis to Toronto in a trade deadline deal.
All in all, Houston's chances look a lot better if they can position themselves for an April showdown with the Grizzlies. It's not a guaranteed victory by any stretch of the imagination; the Grizzlies reached the Conference Finals before, after all. They are a young and tough team who always provide a stiff match-up with any squad on any given night. However, with the Grizzlies lacking on offensive power and speed--something the Rockets have plenty of in spades-if Houston has any chance of reaching the semifinals, a dramatic improvement from years past, then the Rockets need to get that sixth seed from Golden State.
Their postseason fate may well rest on it.