In hindsight, a few intangible factors of the inconsistent Houston Rockets versus the consistent Toronto Raptors foretold of their reversal of fortunes.
Preseason predictions by the majority of analysts projected the Houston Rockets would have a season similar to what the Toronto Raptors have accomplished. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe there was ever a doubt which roster was better prepared for adversity and success.
Fresh off a Western Conference finals appearance, to say there was optimism in Clutch City is an understatement. With the 2015 MVP runner-up James Harden at the helm, a still capable Dwight Howard and what was considered to be upgrades of added depth to the retained core, why shouldn’t Red Nation be excited? Instead the 2015-16 season has been inexplicably tortuous for the fan base.
Considering the heights attained last season when so many man games were lost due to injury, with a relatively healthy upgraded squad the Rockets under whelming performance has baffled. For those invested in their team, what has made this perplexing season so difficult to stomach is the seeming lack of intensity and effort on the court.
Every time the squad would pull off a big victory or go on a minor win streak it was rationalized the Rockets were on the precipice of pulling out of the doldrums they were stuck in. Yet repeatedly the team would counter the ups with equal dips, often laced with articles of off court issues or secret player meetings instead of a firm resolution. Unfortunately with just ten regular season games remaining the Rockets have failed to take advantage of repeated opportunities, continue to hover at .500 and cling precariously to the eighth seed with a young Utah Jazz team breathing down their neck.
In contrast, their opponent this evening have experienced an almost magical season, and but for the incredible seasons of the Warriors and Spurs could well be the story line of the 2015-16 NBA season.
Having watched all 70 Toronto Raptors games and 72 Houston Rockets games I was struck by the epiphany of how quickly a franchise’s fortunes can turn based on a few intangible factors.
The Spectrum between the Rockets and Raptors
Last Season and 2015 Playoffs:
Both teams finished with home court advantages last season, but it was felt the Raptors would have an easier path up the playoff ladder. Instead the Wizards who they had owned in the regular season swept them, embarrassingly blowing them out in the final game. Their defense sputtered and both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan couldn’t recover from lingering injuries.
Conversely the Rockets bulldozed their way through the season despite copious injuries and shocked many. Believe me I’m on more than one podcast predicting Houston’s success in rounds 1 and 2 to counterparts who didn’t even think they’d beat Dallas. Coming back in dramatic fashion to win Game 6 in L.A. will resonate in the Houston Rockets memory banks for years to come. Though considered a long shot by most pundits to make the WCF, those in Clutch City weren’t surprised.
What most NBA fans remember is just that Houston lost, but if you revisit that series they lost the first game by 4 points and the second game by 1 prior to the blow out loss in the Game 3. But for a few fouls here or there, a slip on the court or a turnover the Rockets could just as easily been in the finals last season.
The Off Season Response:
Again, it’s been a common refrain of this writer’s throughout the season that what the Rockets (and more specifically James Harden) did this summer and how they (he) arrived in camp was perhaps the most telling sign of things to come. It was extremely bothersome that Stephen Curry who won the regular season 2015 MVP as well as the Larry O’Brien trophy out-worked the bearded man, who logic would assume would be more motivated and driven to come back this season to send a message. Ummm – – not so much.
The visible pudginess and rust was obvious and not of the twisted ankle variety. No, this was a full summer of partying with the Kardashian clan and signing a $200 million dollar endorsement deal with adidas. Hey, he’s young and extremely talented, and who’s to say 99% of the population wouldn’t do exactly the same thing. The problem was it was felt Harden had grown after experiencing this exact type of loss while still with the Thunder when they lost in the finals to the Heat. In addition the growth he demonstrated with Team USA and last season provided the foundation to base the rationale he would commit to raising his own personal bar.
— KIX (@ALLKIX) February 13, 2016
Conversely the All-Star Toronto back court took their sweep at the hands of the Wizards extremely seriously and re sculpted their bodies this summer. DeMar DeRozan added muscle showing up to camp with a greatly increased beefy exterior which has assisted with his drives and late game strength And, unless you live under a rock you know the story of Kyle Lowry’s amazing transformation, who for the record continues his off court conditioning in Toronto and remains “Skinny Kyle Lowry”
— Anthony Carr (@shugaz187) August 5, 2015
Consistency vs Inconsistenty:
The Raptors have easily been the most consistent Eastern Conference team this season. They rank second (behind the Warriors) for best record versus top 10 teams, have the best road record in the East, best Division and Conference record. Whereas the Rockets – – well, let’s not beat a dead horse. This chart used in today’s game day preview tells the story:
Back Courts Define Both Teams:
Toronto boasts arguably the second best back court in the NBA whereas – – well, again the Rockets utilize Harden as their primary ball handler. In spite of the different iterations of point guards trotted out to partner with him this season, each one knows they won’t function in the typical PG role. Rather, whoever partners with Harden is either assigned a predominant defensive role or is on the court to offer an additional 3-point scoring threat. Personally, I’ll take two talented guards over one any day.
If you wonder why Harden tends to cough off the ball often in late game situations it’s a reasonable explanation given the amount of possessions he is tasked with captaining and the amount of time the ball is in his possession. By game end as team’s raise their defensive emphasis for the pivotal clutch minutes he draws extra attention and since every opponent knows he’s going to handle the ball and likely also be tasked to score the opposing defensive strategy is a no-brainer.
While there are still those concerned the iso ball will cause problems in the post season for the Raptors the fact is they are deeper this season, have improved ball movement and their 3 point shooting ranks fourth in the league. AND all of that is occurring without DeMarre Carroll in the line-up for 47 games. Scuttlebutt is the Raptors still hope to get him back on the court by month end, and if successful it will only serve to increase those pluses and more specifically add another valuable high end playoff defender to the mix.
Leadership Makes a Difference:
Harden is definitely a talent (super star if you will) though I maintain my stance regurgitated on SCS repeatedly all year: Until Harden is able to raise the level of his game to make his teammates better the onus of the Rockets inconsistency falls on his shoulders. The odd thing is last season Harden seemed to inherently know how to involve his entire team and they thrived because of it, but this year that talent has abandoned him, there is just no other explanation for it.
In the 6ix, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan serve as the yin-yang leadership duo who are the perfect leadership tandem off the court just as they are on it. The gregarious Lowry is offset by the quieter DeRozan and the team boasts one of the closest locker rooms in the Association.
Holes in Roster:
Whether it was Ty Lawson not fitting the line-up, the inconsistency of Patrick Beverley or the regression of Terrence Jones and Josh Smith the two roster spots the Rockets struggled the most were at point guard and power forward. So, it must be strange to glance at the Raptors roster to witness former Rockets Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson excelling as core contributors.
I don’t recall Lowry’s time in Memphis, but I was a huge fan of his in Houston. Ditto for Patrick Patterson who may not have the same effect of Lowry in terms of leadership, but he has become the cornerstone of the Raptors defense. Odd to think these 2 players ended up in Toronto playing such a pivotal role. Odder still to think their positions are where the Rockets struggle the most.
Seizing the Opportunity:
Another major distinction between these two teams is how they have dealt with adversity and opportunity. It’s been painstaking to observe Houston’s inconsistency especially while their counterparts haven’t pulled away. Injury alone has presented multiple opportunities and continues to with Memphis decimated, and now news Chandler Parsons of the Mavericks and Meyers Leonard of the Blazers will both be lost for the season.
Again in stark contrast the Raptors have been without Carroll for 47 games, were without Jonas Valanciunas for a quarter of the season and have endured a host of other injuries. To put this in perspective, recognize the Raptors have five players who see limited court time. Only recently has second round rookie Norman Powell been receiving minutes and that is due to the injuries of Carroll and James Johnson. The infamous 2 years from being 2 years away Bruno Caboclo remains at least one year from fulfilling that prophecy.
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Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, rookie Delon Wright and the recently released Anthony Bennett were also long term projects who weren’t seeing the floor. So, for the Raptors to rise up to each challenge and face adversity by growing stronger is a sign of how tight the club is. Bennett was released when the Raptors signed Jason Thompson (who was waived by the Warriors who picked up Anderson Varejao) to provide more depth in the Raptors front court.
Ironically, in many ways the Raptors have reminded me of the Houston Rockets 2014-15 version that featured cohesiveness, better leadership and someone always rising to the occasion.
As the two squads prepare to face off this evening I’m fascinated by how quickly their fortunes have changed. The young Raptors franchise have already clinched a playoff berth, have a host of young developing talent, and will enter this summer’s draft with their own pick and what is currently the 10th pick as well (via the higher pick of the Knicks or Nuggets pick obtained via the trade of Andrea Bargnani).
Conversely, the Rockets teeter on the edge of a date with the best team in the NBA in the first round or missing the post season all together. If they do make the playoffs they’ll lose their pick to Denver for the failed Ty Lawson experiment. It’s a difficult time in Houston as many pine for a deja vu of the 2015 squad who went on that magical stretch run versus others who recognize there is more than minor tweaks requiring resolution to fix what ails Rockets Nation. The contrast of these teams serves to punctuate how fragile a roster can be when chemistry issues abound.
Suffice to say a beefed up DeMar DeRozan and ‘Skinny Kyle Lowry’ have the Toronto Raptors well positioned for this season and beyond. The question is, what will it take for the Houston Rockets to rediscover their intangibles?
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