Entering the day the Rockets were well aware of how important this game was and the impact it would not only have on their regular season, but the far reaching effect it could have to their playoff journey. While I cited this as a must-win there were fans who disagreed saying a win would be great, but a loss wouldn’t end our season.
Definitely not a must win game. https://t.co/oBEj4Fzct0
— Aaron Rieke (@agrieke) April 10, 2015
The fans are right of course however this one point heartbreak loss did leave a lasting impression. And while the Rockets drop to the 6th seed there is still hope they can finish with home court seeding.
Unfortunately it will require some scoreboard watching and some assistance from opposing teams who’ll face the Rockets’ inter-division rivals.
Friday on nba.com James Harden was the focus of Fran Blinebury’s feature article saying he respectfully felt he deserved MVP this season. And with that proclamation Harden had increased the glare of the spotlight on himself for this critical inter-division game. On the heels of a spectacular 45-point performance Stephen Curry delivered versus the Blazers, a typical Harden performance Friday would provide fodder for why the pundits should make Harden a prophet.
Though Harden did affect the game in many aspects and made 2 critical plays in the closing minute, the final play inevitably will likely seal Curry’s MVP Award. Fair or not, the story book ending was within his grasp and his dejected post game response “Gotta finish, gotta finish” indicates Harden already knows his MVP stock has shifted downward.
Tim Duncan's game winning block on Harden…Or was it a foul? https://t.co/RqARgoKN0j
— Sports Vines (@TheSportsVines) April 11, 2015
It wasn’t a vintage Harden performance, but he definitely made key contributions especially down the stretch however the controversial ending is what will resonate.
Forget the fact he hit a clutch three to bring the Rockets within a point or that he caused the turnover by Manu Ginobili that gave the Rockets the ball with a little over 6 seconds remaining. All that anyone will recall is he didn’t make the final shot and those that didn’t see the game will just look at his stat line which shouts of a poor shooting night (5 of 19) and 4 turnovers.
The trio of Harden, Ariza and Howard all produced good stat lines, albeit with some serious questions remaining that McHale and the team will need to reflect on today:
James Harden: 16 Points, 10 Assists, 2 Rebounds, 3 Steals (shot 5 of 19 from the field and went to the line just 6 times)
Dwight Howard: 12 Points, 14 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 2 Steals, 2 Blocks (had just 5 field goals attempts)
Trevor Ariza: 19 Points, 4 Rebounds, 1 Steal, shot 4 of 5 from behind the arc (while clearly hot had just 8 field goal attempts)
Tim Duncan: 29 Points, 10 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 1 Steal, 3 Blocks
Kawhi Leonard: 18 Points, 9 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 4 Steals
With Howard successfully manning the paint and no apparent answer from San Antonio on how to stop him I have to ask the question: Why did he only have 5 field goal attempts? Further, Ariza established early he was hot from the field and yet following his sizzling start the Rockets abandoned getting him the ball. He shot 7 of 8 from the field warranting at least another 5 or so shot attempts especially with Harden sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of his shot falling.
Apr 10, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) sits on the bench during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center. The Spurs defeated the Rockets 104-103. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
While the sting of the loss and how we lost is still fresh there were many positives to take away from last night’s loss:
- Learning from Wednesday, adjustments were made and we saw specific examples of those improvements with Parker rendered virtually a non entity.
- The disparity in the paint was not a factor with the Rockets not allowing another 62 point production from the Spurs limiting them to 44 points in the paint to their 38.
- Prior to the hack-a-Josh tactic the Rockets were fully taking advantage of their pace and speed leading to a 27-9 fast break disparity for the Rockets.
- While Leonard still provided a productive effort he wasn’t as big of a factor in this game and you weren’t left feeling he was the one controlling the game.
- As poorly as Harden shot the ball, he still did a lot of great things and made good game decisions to involve his teammates. His ten assists speaks to how he moved the ball and as noted the Rockets had the ball in their hands to finish the game with the potential to win it on a 2-point play.
- Well there were those free throws …..
- Like all season the kryptonite of this team continues to be turnovers and tonight was no different with Houston committing 20 turnovers leading to 19 Spurs points.
- Jason Terry played well and boasted the highest plus/minus for the home team with a plus +12, however the gap in the point guard position specifically from the bench and in terms of defending the opposing back court speaks to how much the Rockets miss Patrick Beverley.
- The fundamental strategy of “feed the pig” (as Doc Rivers would say) seemed to elude the squad and it likely cost them the game. As great as Timmy Duncan played the Spurs had no answer for Howard inside and yet he only took 5 total shots on the night. Further, Ariza was on fire, but the team abandoned getting him the ball and not because he went cold, they just stopped passing it to him.
- Other than Jason Terry I didn’t see another veteran on the team step up to calm the team when the hack-a-Josh became the running script. It was obvious the Rockets were frustrated with all the flopping of the Spurs and the fact Popovich was controlling the pace by not allowing there to be one. Terry did his best to get the squad to focus on the matter at hand, but inevitably they allowed Pops and his flip flopping Spurs to get in their heads.
What we learned:
With all the money Daryl Morey has invested in players, analytics and improving the team it’s time he spends some worthwhile dollars investing in a shooting coach.
The fact Gregg Popovich took the game to a roaring halt with his hack-a-Smith tactics can be debated on their merits, but you can’t deny the result.
Pops strategy led to keeping the ball out of Harden’s hands, ground Houston’s offense to a halt and by the time the third quarter was over the Spurs held a 5 point lead.
While Smith stepped to the line repeatedly looking more and more dejected the brilliant Popovich had sparked his team to its first lead of the game and momentum heading into the final frame.
What makes this problem even more troublesome is even if McHale replaced Josh Smith he had to avoid sending Dwight Howard or Joey Dorsey to the court because their free throw shooting is even more dismal. Heading to the post season the fact any team Houston faces will likely utilize this strategy means we’ll be robbed of the natural ebb and flow of a game, but it also pinpoints the Rockets could easily be put in a position to rely on a free throw to win or lose a game.
In the half court dominated offense of playoffs where opposing coaches can remove Hardens’ offensive prowess via this tactic it’s beyond worrisome.
And for a GM who has always been on the cusp of utilizing numbers to the team’s greatest advantage the fact he hasn’t looked at team free throw percent or made any steps to offset this issue is unacceptable.
Employing the strategy of three point shots and interior post lay-ups is wonderful and usually successful, but when a team removes your ability to run your offense how can you extol on its merits?
The Clippers will go through a similar situation with DeAndre Jordan, however they don’t have THREE players who will get that treatment. Moreover, it allows the opposing team’s who boast good percentage free throw shooters to run their offense and attempt field goals with the possibility of getting additional points at the line. It’s not pretty or enjoyable to watch, but can you blame Pops or for that matter any opposing coach for capitalizing on the Rockets glaring weakness in this area?
Josh Smith shot 26 free throws connecting on 12 for 46%. His season average is 51%
Dwight Howard shot 9 free throws connecting on 6 for 66%. His season average is 53%
Joey Dorsey shot free throws connecting on for %. His season average is 26.6 %
And it doesn’t get much better with the addition of Rookie Clint Capela who is shooting 0.0% and was shooting approximately 25% in D-League from the stripe
The Rockets began the game showcasing the fact they were intent on bringing the game at the Spurs and got off to a 12-0 lead. Harden looked ready to have an MVP type night, but these are the Championship Spurs and with head coach Gregg Popovich patrolling the sidelines you knew he’d find a way to get his Spurs back in the game.
Instead of breaking down the game by frame let me just say the Spurs employed a ton of psychological warfare on the Rockets between the copious flops of Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili and the continuous “hack-a-Josh” strategy utilized by Popovich.
For Rocket’s fans or purists of the game it definitely isn’t the type of thing you want to watch. Conversely it’s difficult to fault the strategy given the result. How can you blame Popovich for using the strategy when in essence it ground Houston’s offense to a halt, took the ball out of Harden’s hands, gave the Spurs time to catch their breath and inevitably pole vaulted San Antonio into a position to capture the Southwest Division Title while sending the Rockets to the sixth seed.
At the end of the day, it’s on the Rockets to put a team on the floor that can shoot free throws at least at a rate that erases the possibility for opposing teams to use the same tactic. If the Rockets don’t capitalize on their season long efforts to remain a top seed or go deep in the playoffs all because we can’t shoot free throws then the questions will arise who is responsible?
Is it on the players? Is it on the coach? Or is it on Management to bring in a shooting coach who can work with the Rockets’ players who struggle from the line? Several teams and players have hired shooting coaches with positive results:
Toronto hired Dave Hopla who improved their overall free throw percent in 2007. Hopla then moved on to Washington due to family residing there and improved 7 players percent from the line. The Timberwolves hired Mike Penberthy to work with the team and specifically improve Ricky Rubio’s mechanics. During the time Rubio was out with the ankle injury he worked with Penberthy and upon his return did see a great improvement. Blake Griffin hired a shooting coach following his rookie season and also saw significant improvements. Going all the way back to the late 90’s the Mavericks employed a shooting coach and saw their free throw shooting sky rocket to the top the league.
And, while I’m not suggesting the Rockets should expect to see results that would move their dismal free throw shooters to the top of the Association, certainly tonight speaks to the fact it’s time something is done to improve the team’s overall performance in this area.
It’s a question I’m sure we’ll be discussing repeatedly leading up to the playoffs and one Daryl Morey doesn’t need experts to analyze to understand how critical it is to do something…. NOW!
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