Sports Pulse: Jeff Zillgitt walks us through what overlooked teams may have a chance at the championship
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Somewhere, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and his analytics staff must be calculating a new mathematical formula.
It does not indicate a shift in identity. The equation might just confirm the identity in a different context. For a team that has a front office and coaching staff that places a high value on 3-point shooting and small-ball lineups, the Rockets surely are mindful that skill could exploit opponents during the NBA playoffs. Even more so since some teams might labor with injuries, conditioning and chemistry stemming from the NBA’s halted season.
“It’s great, but that’s the only plan we have,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We kind of have to stick with it. It’s what we do. But we’re going to keep doing it. We feel good with where we are right now.”
The Rockets should feel good with where they are.
They finished with a 120-116 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex after closing out the final three minutes with a 16-4 run. The Rockets (42-24) are also only two days removed from beating the Dallas Mavericks in overtime after overcoming a seven-point deficit with 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Since Houston will make the playoffs and home-court advantage is almost non-existent at the NBA’s Disney campus, these wins mean little from a bottom-line perspective. It means everything, though, for the state of the Rockets’ identity. With their outside shooting and small-ball lineups, the Rockets are primed to become the ultimate disruptor en route to a possible NBA championship.
“Offensively we’re one of the best teams out there,” Rockets star James Harden said. “Defensively if we stay engaged, which I think we have been for four quarters and in overtime, it’s going to be tough for teams to beat us.”
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Surely, the Bucks (54-13) had a tough time beating the Rockets (42-24), partly because of the absences of Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton. Houston still deserves credit, though.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated with 36 points on 14-of-25 shooting, but Harden and Danuel House forced two turnovers on him in the final two minutes. Even if the Bucks dominated the offensive glass (17-6) because of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, the Rockets still limited them defensively by forcing 22 turnovers.
“It’s heart and the will. Everybody says we’re undersized. They got a couple offensive rebounds on us just because they got 7-footers and what-not. But we just have to keep fighting,” Harden said. “Once we get that ball, we’re out. So it takes good spirit, good fight and making sure defensively we are communicating and being in our positions.”
On the other end, Houston went 21-of-61 from 3-point range. The Rockets did not fret. They willingly tied an NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a regulation game because they knew the math would eventually prevail against a Bucks team that made fewer attempts from the perimeter (9-of-35) and remained intent on packing the paint. Despite making only two of his first 11 attempts from deep, Houston forward P.J. Tucker made a corner 3-pointer to reduce the Bucks’ lead to 112-109 with 2:32 left. That started the Rockets’ 16-4 run to close the game.
“Our thing is to keep playing and keep the faith,” D’Antoni said. “That’s what we do. If you lose, you lose. But we’re going to play the way we know how to play. Hopefully it works out.”
That does not guarantee the formula will always work.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and Toronto Raptors have more depth than a Houston team whose fortunes mostly rely on Harden and Russell Westbrook. Their small-ball lineup might become fatigued in a long playoff series. Remember when the Rockets lost to the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals after missing 27 consecutive 3s? Remember when Houston could not beat the Warriors in last year’s West semifinals despite Kevin Durant injuring his right calf in Game 5?
But what Houston might lack in talent and size, they make up for with the right personnel to maximize D’Antoni’s offense and Morey’s vision. With center Clint Capela failing to provide adequate rim protection in the playoffs, Houston pondered the point in even trying to match for size when there are no players available. So the Rockets doubled down when they traded Capela in a four-team, 12-player trade for Robert Covington.
They now have even more shooters that can make 3s, including Harden, Tucker, Covington, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore and Jeff Green. The Rockets will add even more 3-point shooting when Eric Gordon is expected to return for the playoffs after injuring his left ankle. And they have enough quick wing players to defend the perimeter and switch onto bigs in the paint.
What’s really scary? The Rockets may not have peaked yet.
Harden’s conditioning looks sharp after staying disciplined with workouts and dieting during the hiatus. Westbrook has shown no ill effects from missing the beginning of resumed training camp because he tested positive for COVID-19. While Harden bolsters Houston with his deliberate pace and outside shooting, Westbrook helps the Rockets with more speed, drives to the basket and kick-outs to shooters. That explains why it has been one of Harden’s most enjoyable seasons after having clashes the previous two years with Chris Paul.
The Rockets’ 3-point shooting and small-ball versatility could also prove lethal against other teams struggling to navigate the physical and mental hurdles over the rest of the NBA’s restarted season for the next two months.
“We found ourselves,” Harden said. “It’ll obviously have to be defense, rebounding and transition defense. Offensively, we can score on anybody. Once we find that identity, it’ll be scary for us.”
So while the rest of the NBA might seem unpredictable, the Rockets aren’t. They know their strengths and will ride them, knowing the odds might play in their favor.
“We have a team that is ready to tackle the playoffs,” D’Antoni said. “That’s obviously long. But it’s some great basketball.”