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Why The Houston Rockets Won’t Make NBA Finals

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Denying the Houston Rockets a spot in the NBA Finals may seem premature and odd to most. Especially considering the fact that they are reserving the third spot in a highly competitive Western Conference. Not to mention, they’re doing so without their second go-to-guy in Dwight Howard. My prediction even goes against the grain in terms of the ever-so popular motto, “Defense wins championships”. If you haven’t heard it from anyone yet, you’ll hear it from me first. Sorry Rockets fans, but this year isn’t quite your time.

There is a lot of upside for Houston as the season moves in closer to the playoffs though. Dwight Howard should make his reappearance soon, the Rockets may be able to snag the second seed and James Harden is still a viable MVP candidate… but that’s as far as it goes. I’m not saying that the Rockets aren’t a good team. I’m not saying that Howard’s return won’t improve the team’s success. I’m not even saying that they won’t win one or two playoff series. However, what I am saying is that with the current core they have, they will be outmatched in several potential postseason match ups.

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The Pros

As most of the top Western Conference teams, the Rockets are a high scoring bunch. They rank sixth in points per game (103.3) and ninth in assists per game (22). It’s almost an impossible task to defend arguably the best slasher known to man in James Harden. His ability to literally weave to any spot he wants is frightening to opposing teams to say the least.

Harden’s MVP candidacy should not be solely looked at as an achievement though. His leadership bleeds into his teammates which goes a long way. Not only do they play better in their current game but their confidence smooths over to the next. For example, a few weeks ago the Rockets hosted the Los Angeles Clippers. Harden struggled from the field (21 points on 4-13 shooting) but his trust in his teammates (10 assists) propelled the Rockets to victory. Terrence Jones, Trevor Ariza and Donatas Motiejunas all put their stamp on that victory with 59 points between the three of them.

Two days later, they faced the Brooklyn Nets in what should have been an easy win. Contrary to expectations, the game was actually a slug fest that was decided in the final seconds. Harden did not shoot well again (15 points on 4-15 shooting) but he got his teammates involved by racking up 12 assists. Again, Jones, Ariza and Motiejunas played essential roles in that win by combining for 57 points.

Aside from scoring, the Rockets are also in the top half of the league in grabbing boards which goes hand-in-hand with defensive efficiency. The Rockets have excellent individual defenders that are communicating well enough to place them among the top two teams in steals per game (9.6) and 13th in blocks per game (4.8).

With all that being said, those season stats have been developed in the 31-game absence of Superman himself: Dwight Howard.

The Dwight Howard Effect

Howard’s pedestrian 16.3ppg (fewest since his second year) and 11rpg (fewest since his rookie year) in his 32 appearances might not scream “Superman” but his presence is dearly missed. The obvious benefit Howard brings to the team is a low-post presence that will open a floodgate of opportunities. They’ll be more ball movement in the event of double teams, more pick and rolls and more second chance possibilities. And that’s just on the offensive end.

Howard is a high-flying brick wall that makes it impractical to get a bucket over. When he reclaims his throne in the paint, the Rockets will ultimately grab more rebounds that’ll lead to an increase in fast break opportunities.

Right now, Houston only shoots 43.9 percent from the field but Howard can help that increase. Howard stands as a safety valve that can and will grant the Rockets a few easy baskets each game. That’ll come key in the playoffs where the game slows down and each possession counts.

After comprehending and understanding that Howard’s return improves offensive and defensive efficiency, I still believe the Rockets do not have what it takes to make it to the NBA Finals. I’ve purposely neglected the cons thus far because now is the perfect time to expose them.

“In fact, the only team that turns the ball over more than the Rockets are the 76ers. And Howard reserves 3.1 turnovers per game (2nd among centers).”

The Cons 

A few of my biggest concerns with the Rockets is their ugly habit to waste possessions and inability to close games against elite teams. In recent memory, they’ve squandered a pair of games to the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks and almost to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Against the Grizzlies, they entered the fourth quarter with a tie score and fell into a 10-point hole within the first three minutes. Regardless of the James Harden no-call, they lost focus and allowed the game to get out of hand.

In the game against the Mavericks, they turned the ball over (21 times) more than they assisted. This is not a feat that rarely occurs. In fact, the only team that turns the ball over more than the Rockets are the 76ers. And Howard reserves 3.1 turnovers per game (2nd among centers).

In addition, their battle with the Cavaliers could have easily gone the other way had LeBron James made his free throws. That game was lost by James rather than won by the Rockets. All in all, the Rockets tend to beat themselves with careless plays.

I’m also ways away from being confident of their supporting cast to contribute largely enough to win consecutive series. Offensively, they have one of the worst benches in the NBA. Brewer and Terry are hit or miss players. Once Howard comes back, Motiejunas, Smith or Jones will be coming off the bench and I don’t think any of them will flourish without the playmaking ability of Harden. In that Rockets/Grizzlies game above, guess who wasn’t on the floor in the beginning of the fourth quarter during the 10-0 run? But wait, there’s more…

The Playoffs

If you’re not familiar with the term “playoff foul”, allow me to introduce it to you. Keeping it short and concise, a “playoff foul” basically means there are no easy buckets. If there is a man between the basket and the player with the ball, he will do everything in his power to ensure he doesn’t score. Even if that includes accruing a few flagrants. With the game decelerated, there will more trips to line in which the Rockets are atrocious in going. As a team, they shoot 72 percent. And as hacking a terrible free throw shooting is becoming a recycled late-game trend, teams will be literally welcoming Dwight Howard back with open arms during the playoffs.

The Rockets are fit for regular season success but not postseason triumph. Without diving to far into it, the only match ups I can potentially envision the Rockets to win are against the Los Angeles Clippers and maybe the Dallas Mavericks.

Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers proved that there was no one worthy to guard LaMarcus Aldridge and that story will resume if they meet again. A series against the Grizzlies or the Thunder will expose Howard’s vulnerability towards physical teams. And if they happen to play the Spurs in the first round, I don’t even expect them to make it past five games.

As I previously stated, each possession counts in the postseason. Yes, the Rockets shooting percentage will improve with Howard but not significantly. I think their routine mistakes outweigh their advantages in a seven-game series. Harden is a great individual player but his team isn’t stacked to help him win it all.

Next: Did suspension and no call cost Rockets Division?

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