Dragic, balance, road play keys to Rockets’ finish


If the Rockets are to finish the season strong and make a run at the playoffs, expect Goran Dragic to have a big say in the way things play out.




With the trade deadline passed, and a new lineup in place, what are the Rockets’ keys to making a successful playoff push?

Goran Dragic playing at a high level as a starter – Without Kyle Lowry in the lineup, we’ve seen Dragic take another step forward in his NBA career. The guy has just been flat-out phenomenal since being inserted as the starting point guard on March 3, as Lowry’s still out with a bacterial infection.

As good as Lowry is (averaging 15.9 points, 7.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds), there is hardly a dramatic drop turning the team over to Dragic (16.7 points, 9.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds since assuming the starting role). He might not rebound as well as Lowry, but watching him battle on every possession, on both sides of the court, you see the talent.

One thing that he does seem to do better than Lowry is create a good look for himself off the dribble. He’s a very crafty lefty, with moves that mimic San Antonio Spurs star shooting guard Manu Ginobili. Of course, he’s not on Ginobili’s level as far as scoring the basketball, or having that star power, but as a point guard, Dragic doesn’t need to be. His job description to get teammates involved, which he does well, should come first. It’s the same moves that allow him to be a scoring threat that also translate to him breaking down defenses, eventually leading to an open man.

In result, Dragic having a 10-assist night is by no means shocking (he’s had four of those over the past 11 games as a starter).

On the other side of the court, he’s got the motor, will and size to battle and make it tough on his opponent. On March 13, when the Rockets stole a win against the top-seeded (then 32-10) Oklahoma City Thunder, his pesky defense against a lightning bolt of athleticism in star point guard Russell Westbrook caused the latter to draw a technical for a crucial costly point late in a close game. Considering the game was decided by only a point (104-103), it was a huge mistake on Westbrook’s behalf.

Even more impressive was Dragic’s response to Westbrook attempting to get in his face. He didn’t back down, nor did he go over the top. He just got right back in the star’s face and shouted “WHAT!?”

That’s the kind of fire you need from your team’s leader to compete with the best in the NBA.

At this point, Dragic is doomed by not having a consistent backup that can allow him to get a breather in this fast-paced, condensed season. In a tough Western Conference, where the fourth and eighth seeds are only separated by a game and a half, and with Lowry not having a given timetable as to when he’ll be back in action, Dragic will have to continue to play at a high rate to finish the season.

The Rockets, as a team, just can’t afford for him to hit a rough patch in the least bit (sitting in the eighth and final playoff seed).

All playoff hopes now live in and die with Dragic’s consistency to play at a high level.

A balanced scoring attack – The Rockets’ roster doesn’t boast any 20-point a game scorers. Even when starting shooting guard Kevin Martin (owning the team’s highest average at 17 points per) comes back from injury, he’s not going to be able to get to the free-throw line to average 20-plus points as he has in past seasons.

With that being the case, whether it’s in one game or a bundle, different guys are going to have to step up and make shots.

We’ve seen it in glimpses throughout the season, with Chase Budinger (two 20-plus games), Chandler Parsons (3), Courtney Lee (3), Samuel Dalembert (2) and Patrick Patterson (1) all contributing with uncharacteristically high-scoring outings.

Looking back on the schedule and the top scorers in each game, there’s no one Rocket player that consistently keeps his name on top of the stat sheet.  As steady as veteran power forward Luis Scola has been (averaging 16 points), at his best he’s just not an ideal “go-to” guy on an every-game basis for any team.

However, the Rockets recently beat two top teams in the Thunder (39-12) and Los Angeles Lakers (31-20), proving they have the ability to hang tough defensively in close games (both won by three points or less). They also showed the ability to convert baskets in crunch time despite not having that star player to simply hand the ball to.

Instead, both Dragic (against the Lakers) and Lee (against the Thunder) each hit big shots off each other’s assists to clinch close games against the star-studded teams, in almost mirror-like fashion. A few nights ago against Sacramento, a normally quiet Patrick Patterson (averaging a career-high 7.6 points) took over as the team struggled, scoring 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting on the night. He eventually would be considered the catalyst in producing a hard-fought win against DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings.

The unfortunate side to this strategy is that the expectation for it to continue to equal wins against quality teams isn’t high. Naturally, it’s thought a team without a star player will eventually hit the proverbial wall and fall short of playoff success.

The Rockets’ most recent game against the Dallas Mavericks displayed a perfect example of that notion.

With just under three minutes left in the game, the Rockets, down by eight, were set to make another dramatic comeback. However, in a sequence of plays, 7-foot superstar power forward Dirk Nowitzki rose and knocked down a two-point shot off a screen to push a ten-point lead; on the next play, 6-foot-9 Scola missed a layup over the outstretched arm of Nowitzki, followed by the Rockets stealing the ball back, before, again, Scola being denied in converting over Nowitzki around the rim. If that wasn’t enough, Nowitzki was sent to the free-throw line on the next possession as the Mavs never relinquished the lead, winning by a comfortable nine-point margin.

Going forward, to snatch a playoff seed, somebody different on the Rockets roster will have to continue to step up. Guys like Kobe Bryant (with a 25-point career average) and Nowitzki (22.9) will score against even the best defense possible in clutch moments. Houston simply does not have that luxury. The Rockets will have to match with a full team effort, and quite frankly, every Houston player should relish this opportunity to shine.

Time to pick it up on the road – At home in the Toyota Center, the Rockets have taken care of business, holding a 19-7 record while beating the likes of the Spurs (35-14), Hawks (30-22), Thunder (39-12), Utah (27-24), Memphis (27-21), Sixers (28-22) and Lakers (31-20).

On the road? Not so much (at 8-17). As opposed to their performance at home, as visitors the Rockets have inexplicably lost to many inferior teams such as the Suns (25-26), Cavaliers (17-31), Raptors (17-34) and Warriors (20-29).

Why is this important?

Houston’s remaining schedule includes eight road games to only seven home games. Although the Rockets are currently sitting last in the Western Conference playoff ranks, the 9th-place Denver Nuggets hold the exact same record of 27-24.

In the seven home games, four will be against above-.500 opponents. Memphis, Indiana (32-20), Utah and Denver could all pose a threat to steal a victory from the Rockets despite their success at home. Of the three teams they will play below .500 at home, for the already mentioned Warriors and Suns, it wouldn’t be a shock if an upset were to occur, as they’ve beaten the Rockets already this season.

As much an obstacle as that creates, the path of road games Houston will embark on is deadly.

Who do they see first? The No. 1 Eastern Conference seed, best-record-in-the-NBA-holding (at 41-11) Chicago Bulls, on Monday. This will start a four-game road stretch also including the Lakers (third seed in the West) and Kings (who gave the Rockets a run for their money in the last meeting in Houston). The fourth team of that road journey is the Trail Blazers, who currently hold a 17-9 home record and are 4-4 since the All-Star break. With Portland considered to be waving the white flag, the Rockets must capitalize on playing a weaker team, as there’s no margin for error.

Three of their last four road games to finish the season will be against above-.500 clubs, two of which are against the teams who appeared in last season’s NBA Finals.

First, they’ll play in Dallas (which owns the season series already at 2-0) on April 18, and finish with a David vs. Goliath match against the juggernaut Heat in Miami.

It will be the first time the Rockets have played against the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwanye Wade and Chris Bosh this season. The Heat currently own the best home record in the NBA at 21-2.

While we more or less know what the Rockets can do at home, every road game will be crucial. Even with the home record being only outnumbered by one game in the upcoming schedule, one game is all it takes to add another 14th pick, as opposed to reaching the team’s goal of making the playoffs.

Bottom line: we’ll learn a lot about this team, as the pressure has forced the team to do what it hasn’t this season. Win on the Road.

With making moves to acquire 37-year-old veteran Marcus Camby, all eyes are focused on postseason success. By bringing in Camby and 35-year-old vet Earl Boykins, the Rockets have showed they’re all in as far as making a run for the playoffs, showing a willingness to address needs sooner than later.

If the season were over today, the Rockets would face a beatable opponent in the Oklahoma City Thunder (season series tied at 2-2). If this happens, look for a great battle, and maybe even a highly unlikely upset.

Otherwise, if the Rockets finish ninth again like they have the last two years, at least they’ll get their first round draft pick from New Jersey back from that ill-fated Terrence Williams deal from December 2010.

Either way, those seem to be the two best, most likely scenarios for the Houston Rockets at the moment.