Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On the Brink of Underachievement

"That's the priority. S---, I'm betting $30 million on it. That's the priority. That's what I want.That's the reason why I play. I have fun, but that's my goal. ... I might have fun, I might joke a lot, but I'm serious about winning a championship."

Those words were spoken by Dwight Howard right after he chose the Houston Rockets last summer during free agency. The move was the highest scrutinized signing since LeBron James chose the Miami Heat in 2010. But with the signing came expectations, not only for Howard- but for the Rockets as a whole. And not just any expectations. 

Championship ones.

Last season saw the Rockets scrape by on the back of James Harden to make the playoffs as an eighth seed at 45-37. They were matched up against the West's top seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder. After going down 0-3, Houston managed to string together two wins in a row before succumbing to elimination in Game 6. While a disappointment, it was still a great result for a team thought of as an afterthought heading into the season...especially before the arrival of James Harden. The predominant thought afterwards was that they'd regroup and get better this season. Daryl Morey would work his magic and put his team in the best possible position to challenge in the uber-competitive West. 

A first round playoff exit was not what fans or anyone in the organization had in mind. It might have been cute and cuddly last year as a sort of "feel good" progressive step- but not this year. Now down to the Portland Trailblazers three games to one, it's a very real possibility.

Once Howard came along after a drama-filled courting process, basketball heads all over the country wondered how the signing changed the culture in Houston. Would they become legitimate challengers? Would Harden and Howard be able to coexist? Could they be one of the best duos in recent NBA history? 

The Rockets would bounce around the top third of the West all season, finishing fourth at 55-27, ten wins up from 2012-13. During one stretch, they beat the Heat, Spurs and Pacers in one week which caused people to wonder just how good this team could be. They cooled off eventually, battling the Portland Trailblazers for the home court advantage as the fourth seed.That had to be a huge coup, right? I mean the Rockets went 3-1 against the Blazers during the regular season. Surely, it was their time to make a move. 

I'm not saying Houston was in any way a shoe-in to win the West, or even a lock to be in the Western Conference Finals. But to not make it out of the first round would be a surefire way to underachieve for a team chalk full of lofty expectations.

Here Houston is, scrapping to stay alive to fight another day. They not only have to win three games in a row. "One game at a time" people say- and they are right. It just never had to be this way, though. Too many turnovers, missed free throws and late game gaffes have led to this moment. I don't want to take away from what Portland has accomplished, though. 

LaMarcus Aldridge was thought of as a match-up nightmare heading into this series- and he's been that and a bag of chips. Damian Lillard has given Houston's defense fits, weaving in and out at will, especially when Patrick Beverley is on the bench. He creates his own shots, as well as opportunities for others. Wesley Matthews and Nicholas Batum have shredded the Rockets from deep, and been crucial late in games. Hell, even Robin Lopez has been a factor on the boards and affected many an important possession during the series. 

If it wasn't bad enough, I stumbled upon this nugget of information: 

 courtesy of @ESPNStatsInfo

That's not out of thirty teams. It's out of sixteen. Pretty much, if the team gets into deep water...they're screwed. Yes, Troy Daniels did this:

But can they expect that every time? No. The veterans such as Harden and Parsons need to take control. I'd mention Howard, but late in these games with the way Portland shoots, Houston needs quick shots- not back-to-the-basket time-wasters. They need to be smarter and hold on to the ball (I'm looking at you, Jeremy Lin) and give themselves the best possible shot. Daniels is very good with his shot selection. Harden and Parsons can become suspect and rely on luck a lot of times, and at other times they shy away and pump fake then pass off. They need to be assertive and decisive. Patrick Beverley is actually very reliable, but late in games he simply hasn't had the ball in his hands.

Houston will need to fight for their lives tonight at home, a place that has been good to them all season. Yet in the postseason, it's a toss of the coin for playoff teams at home. While the Rockets would settle to win merely at all even by just one point, that should not be their goal. Every game in this series has been relatively close and decided in the waning minutes of  the fourth or overtime. A lopsided victory at home can restore faith in the team and confidence in the players and would provide quite a shot to the arm in dire need of it. 

If the Rockets don't get that much-needed shot, their season will flat-line and a ton of new questions will follow. Right now stand out most- can Houston win when they're backs are against the wall Wednesday night?

If they want any chance to live up to the preseason hype, they are going to have to. 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

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