In our Season Guide, Nick Whitfield wrote ‘Playoff success is where this Rockets team will truly be measured’ and never was a truer sentence written. Fast forward to April and the Playoffs are finally here and surprise, surprise, Houston are in. And they aren’t just in, they’re the 1 seed in the Western Conference… THE WESTERN CONFERENCE.
A 66 win season has seen Houston clinch the best record in the NBA, marking the first time D’Antoni’s team has done so since he led the Phoenix Suns to a 62-20 record in 2004-2005. Nobody expected this, but this season the dominos have fallen in Houston’s favour, with Golden State in particular, suffering injury after injury. Indeed D’Antoni guided his team to win streaks of 17, 14 and 11 games, all of which coincided with James Harden’s third straight MVP campaign – which he will win this time – alongside the apparently incompatible and ball-dominant, Chris Paul.
Houston’s biggest strength is undoubtedly it’s historic offense, which has few (if any) weaknesses at all. According to Basketball Reference, this Houston team is ranked eighth-best all-time in offensive rating, which for the new NBA fan amongst you, is an estimate of points produced or scored per a teams 100 possessions.
In a season full of historic stat-lines and memorable individual performances from the likes of James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and Gerald Green (?!), perhaps their most remarkable achievement is that to-date, 82 percent of their field goal attempts are either at the rim or behind the three-point line two of the most efficient shots available on the court. To put that in some perspective, the league average this season has been 65 percent.
Houston also got significantly better on the defensive end of the floor this season, thanks in large part to the hunger of Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Paul, bringing a defensive intensity quite unlike anything they’ve had before; certainly in recent seasons. Paul’s sheer presence alone has been a tremendous boost for this team’s success on the defensive end and it’s hardly surprising, because Paul is a reigning All-Defensive first team honoree. We’ll get onto Luc Mbah a Moute’s impact a little further down.
Simply put, watching Harden, Paul and other members of this outstanding team play basketball this season has been like watching Picasso paint a masterpiece; every play is executed to absolute perfection and because of that, almost nobody has been able to stop them.
It’s pretty difficult trying to define a weakness in Houston’s game this season, after all the defensive inefficiency of previous campaigns has been erased and remarkably the Rockets finished with the league’s sixth-best defense. Their most glaring problem, out of a small selection, is without a doubt their lack of production from the bench. Houston’s second unit averages 30.7 points per game, ranking them 24th in the league. Now, whilst those numbers don’t look great, they aren’t panic worthy because for large segments of regular season games, D’Antoni has rotated his starters and merged them with role players to effectively share the load. This gets the best out of each player and doesn’t overly rely upon a traditional bench, because they always have at least one superstar on the court at all times
It’s pretty simple what the significance of these Playoffs are for Houston; championship or bust.
This team, especially with the acquisition of Chris Paul, has been built for the Playoffs. And now, with a weakened Golden State and relative unknowns elsewhere in the West, the Rockets have never had a better opportunity to blast off and land the franchise’s third title, and first since the 90s.
But let’s not get carried away with a simple regular season record. After all that aforementioned Steve Nash-led Suns team earlier lost in the Western Conference finals to the San Antonio Spurs, 4-1.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER?
If Houston is to win it all, strong performances from Clint Capela, a man who has exceeded Houston’s wildest expectations, are vital. He understands his role and hasn’t been afraid to work on the weaker aspects of his game. He’s dominated on the boards, ranking top ten in rebounds per game, whilst also ranking third in effective field goal percentage; which is pretty remarkable considering he couldn’t shoot two seasons ago. Now, with the Playoffs upon him and a restricted free agency period ahead of him, Capela could be about to go off.
THE ONE TO WATCH?
Luc Mbah a Moute is without doubt one to watch, that is once he returns from his dislocated right shoulder. He’s a key defender for the Rockets, who allow just 101.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, compared to 105.5 with him off. In fact his importance cannot be underestimated and, as stated earlier, the Rockets have the sixth-best defense in the league this season with him in the line-up. Conversely, in the 15 games he missed, their defense drops to 24th and during that stretch during the Rockets went 8-7.
Written by Matthew Wellington – Copyright © 2018 Double Clutch. Double Clutch is not affiliated with the NBA and does not claim ownership over any NBA audio or images used. All rights are those of the NBA/NBA UK and respected parties e.g. Getty images.