With the Oklahoma City Thunder having stolen the momentum from the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs, it’s worth questioning if they’ve figured out how to beat the Rockets’ famed strategy.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is viewed as the pioneer of the analytics movement. Morey and the Rockets have put an emphasis on taking the most efficient shots, which have consistently been the corner 3-point shot and free throws.
The corner three is the shortest 3-point shot on the floor, and the foul shot is the easiest shot in basketball, although not everyone can make them with ease. The Rockets take more threes than anyone else, and the explanation is simple: threes count for more points than two-pointers.
This has been the key to the small ball experiment, as the Rockets theoretically need less shots to outscore opponents, as the majority of their shot attempts count for three. This means the Rockets could have an off shooting night from three and still dominate their opponent, as was the case in Game 2 of the Rockets’ opening round playoff matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In that game, the Rockets made just 33.9 percent of their triples, yet still beat the Thunder by 13 points, winning 111-98. Although the Rockets took an initial 2-0 lead in the series, the Thunder clawed their way back in the series to knot it up 2-2.
The Thunder stole Game 4, with a 117-114 victory, which was an aberration of sorts. The Rockets made 39.7 percent of their threes in the contest, yet still lost the game, which is a rare feat. In fact, the Rockets were 20-1 in the 2019-20 season when they made at least 39 percent of their treys, which is the epitome of Morey ball.
Questioning whether the Thunder have figured out how to beat Morey-ball
Former Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough explained why Game 4 should be concerning for the Rockets, while appearing on Sports Radio 610 on Tuesday.
“The troubling thing for me, if I’m a Rockets fan or if I’m on the sidelines with Mike D’Antoni or in the front office with Daryl Morey is they shot the ball very well in [Game 4]. They made 20+ threes, they made close to 40 percent of their 3-point attempts, they shot the ball well from the free throw line as well, and they still lost.”
As McDonough pointed out, the Rockets made 20 threes in Game 4 and still lost, which represents an outlier. In the 2019-20 season, the Rockets were 12-1 when they made 20 threes or more, which further raises the question of whether the Thunder have figured out how to beat Morey ball.
The Rockets were hindered by poor officiating in Game 4, which contributed to OKC pulling away, in spite of the Rockets’ stellar shooting. It remains to be seen whether the Thunder have figured out how to beat Morey-ball, as one game is simply too small of a sample size to base an assessment.
But if the Houston Rockets are able to close out the series, it won’t matter if the Thunder figured out the strategy.