Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Win and In Trouble

Win, and they’re in.

Most teams would be envious to be controlling their own playoff destiny like the Houston Rockets can Wednesday night. Beat a 33-48 Kings at home team with nothing to play for and seemingly no one to play for them. Sacramento will be without stars DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay.

For a Houston team averaging 124.6 points per game over their last three games, this should not be in question. Fans in Clutch City shouldn’t get ahead of themselves, though. Nothing has been a sure thing this season for a 40-41 Rockets squad. If there’s one thing they’ve been consistent at, it’s being inconsistent.

But if the last two games (wins) are any indication, James Harden and company have found a semblance of rhythm and are showing signs of actual chemistry. That said chemistry has been missing for a majority of the season.

It seems too little, too late for James Harden and company. If this was their version of using the regular season to get in shape for the postseason like Rasheed Wallace was known for, they picked a hell of a time for it. Sure they might beat Sacramento- but they’ll most definitely be in trouble come playoff time.

Morey and the Rockets will need to pull out all the equations if they face the Warriors.

Houston’s general manager Daryl Morey may have an MBA from MIT and known for his unique statistical analysis, but no formula can calculate exactly how all the pieces he’s gathered fit together.

Last year’s roster overachieved and came back from the grave to beat the Los Angeles Clippers and get to the Western Conference Finals. While they may have accomplished more than anyone thought possible, no one could foresee the struggles the team has gone through in 2015-2016.

After bringing back most of last year’s team (even a returning Josh Smith who they let sign with the Clippers last offseason), Houston got off to a rocky 0-3 start before reeling off four straight. Instead of staying on a consistent path, the team would be 4-7 after eleven games. Heads would roll, and the only one who could be held accountable was Kevin McHale’s. Some argued it was too early, while others felt a change sooner than later was a good idea.

There’s no way to figure out how many wins McHale would have led Houston to, but with all their on-court instability, managing personalities and line-ups that gel together have seemingly overwhelmed interim head coach JB Bickerstaff. While a superb assistant coach, Bickerstaff doesn’t hold that same level of credibility as McHale had.

Hovering around the .500 mark almost all season, there was plenty of turmoil to be had amongst Red Nation. The team aggressively shopped Dwight Howard, then had to kiss and make up after no other teams were willing to take on a rental for half a season- a rental with lots of baggage. The team even shopped power forward Donatas Motiejunas, finding a spot for him in Detroit. But ultimately the deal fell through after concerns over Motiejunas’ back were expressed.

I originally thought of Ty Lawson as a redemption story of sorts (that role would go to Michael Beasley) Offseason addition Ty Lawson was on the block as well, with rumors of a deal to the Jazz buzzed. The offer was never solid, and Houston would be so desperate to rid themselves of Lawson that they’d just buy him out.

None of this is what you expect to hear from a team that won its division and finished as a conference finalist last year. But “expect the unexpected” seems to be the team’s unofficial slogan this season.

So here they are. A best case scenario sees them go 41-41 to snag the eighth seed in the West.

Behind door number one? The Golden State Warriors.

This might be the match-up Harden desired at some point in the playoffs after last year’s turn of events- but not like this. The Rockets were mentioned as preseason contenders briefly, especially after many believed getting Ty Lawson was a steal of a deal. Yet once the regular season was underway, the team was never once seen as a contender- and deservedly so. Houston had eight separate occasions where they lost at least three games in a row. They never once managed to win more than three games in a row.

To put that in perspective, Golden State never once lost back to back games, and had seven streaks of 5 wins in a row or more (including starting the season 24-0).

Instead of returning to that “almost MVP” caliber of play from last season, James Harden struggled out of the gate. He did finish strong, coming in second to Curry in scoring (28.9 PPG). Harden had the most 40 pt/ 10 assist games since 1975-1976 (5, matching '05-'06 Allen Iverson and '88-'89 Michael Jordan). Yet those numbers throughout the season often failed to correlate to wins.

Curry outdid himself in fantastic fashion: 29.9 PPG, 6.7 APG and 5.5 RPG. He’s also completing the ever elusive 50-40-90 season as well (50% from field, 45% from three and 90% from the free throw line). Curry blew his three-point record out of the water as well, drilling 392 after 81 games.

And that’s just Curry. I haven’t even gotten to how good Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Maurice Speights and the rest of their team has been. Their unrelenting depth and ball movement is deadly and has helped them be in position to finish 73-9 Wednesday night.

So, does Houston have anything they can lean on in a potential series against the Warriors? Last year they were an afterthought heading into the WCF and did little to change that perception. This year, they’re not even a blip on anyone’s radar. Some even have joked whoever secured the eighth seed doesn’t really make the playoffs. But if there’s one thing Houston can use to their advantage, it’s that no one expects them to do anything at this point. This will cause them to play looser, with less pressure. This in no way guarantees them even one win, especially since they couldn’t beat the Warriors during the season.

Whether or not Houston wins tonight, little can be done to get rid of the stench of underachieving all year. There is plenty of commotion to be had in the offseason, and not just in the free agent market with Daryl Morey. Owner Les Alexander had little patience for Kevin McHale, so who knows how much more he has for Morey- or JB Bickerstaff for that matter.

A silver lining in all of this: if Houston loses to the Kings, and the Jazz win their game, Houston keeps their only draft pick in this year's draft. It might not mean much ultimately, as Morey and company don't have a stellar track record for developing younger players. (Clint Capela, Chandler Parsons and Montrezl Harrell have been rare exceptions.)

Even Wednesday night against the Kings isn’t guaranteed for this Rockets team. A loss would be quite possibly be the most Rockets thing for them to do. And if they can’t win in that advantageous scenario, they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs at all.

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

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