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How the Rockets can fix their late-game struggles

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
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The Houston Rockets are struggling when the game is on the line this season. Here’s how they can fix it.

With three minutes left in the Saturday’s game against the Mavericks, the Rockets were up 102-94 in an excellent position to snap their two-game skid. Then, just about everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

James Harden missed a 3 and air-balled another. Chris Paul missed back-to-back free throws. Eric Gordon missed two 3’s in the final 30 seconds. And of course, Wonderboy Luka Doncic, apparently inspired by the live performance of “Halleluka” during the game, scored 11 of the Mavs’ last 13 points to seal the Rockets’ defeat.

lol they really let us sing at the Mavs game https://t.co/yleS0yQ5An

— Isaac K. Lee (@IsaacKLee) December 9, 2018

It was another frustrating loss during what has been a frustrating season thus far. But it also highlighted yet another weakness for the Rockets: clutch performance during crunch time.

On NBA Stats, plays are considered “clutch” when the game is separated by five or fewer and there is five minutes or less left in the fourth quarter or overtime.

So far, Houston has played in 11 games that qualify as clutch, going 5-6 in those contests.

That record is fortunate considering the Rockets’ shooting percentages. In clutch plays, the Rockets are shooting 36.9% from the field and 21.6% from 3-point range, both of which are the 3rd-worst marks in the league.

When talking about the Rockets’ late-game execution, the conversation must start and end with the reigning MVP. In clutch situations, Harden is posting shooting percentages of 40.9/23.1/83.2 and has a sky-high usage rate of 43%.

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Adding to his inefficient shooting is his poor decision-making, as he is committing more turnovers than assists late in close contests. Harden simply has to play better when the game is on the line.

A lot of the load that Harden is carrying in these situations should be placed on the shoulders of Chris Paul. Paul has taken only four shots in clutch situations and has yet to make one. That’s right, only four shots for one of the best playmakers in the league. For context, Cedi Osman and Ryan Arcidiacono have each taken five. Nothing against those players, but it is obvious that the Point God needs the ball in his hands more when it’s crunch time.

The answer for the Rockets might simply be to just knock down more shots, but I think the squad should also look to make some adjustments to the offensive scheme late in games. They obviously run an iso-heavy offense almost all of the time, and for good reason. Harden and Paul are both very efficient in one-on-one matchups.

But when the game is on the line and the opposing team’s best lineup is on their toes, Harden’s attempt to lull defenders to sleep just isn’t as effective as it is mid-game when some players are just going through the motions. Houston should consider increasing ball and player movement to try to get Harden, Paul, and Gordon more shots within the flow of the offense, instead of just forcing shots against a set defense.

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It’s still early in the season, and the Rockets’ numbers in clutch situations are from a limited sample size. However, they do paint an accurate picture of Houston’s late-game offense. It’s necessary for Houston to score a lot more points than they are now to close out games, and to do that, they need to balance out the playmaking and play with some fire.

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