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Huq’s Pen: What a complete embarrassment

  • Before this series began, never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be writing about the team being down 0-2 heading to Portland.  It was conceivable the Rockets could go down 0-2 in the next round against San Antonio, and in the next round, against the Thunder, I thought that prospect was a near certainty.  But against the Blazers?  While I predicted Houston in 5 on ESPN, I knew 1-1 was a distinct possibility.  But down 0-2 heading to Portland?  It looks like I really underestimated (perhaps willfully ignored) the importance of good coaching in professional sports.  Trust me, there will be much more on this point later.
  • I said on Twitter before tipoff, and also in my Game 1 rant-cap, that I wasn’t overly worried/disappointed with Dwight Howard’s play because, as Charles Barkley said, what we saw in Game 1 is essentially who Dwight is.  Howard came out last night on a completely different level, starting the game out scoring 13 of Houston’s first 15 points, seemingly on a mission to destroy the basket support as he finished every play with one of those dunks where he pulls the whole rim down and hangs for aesthetic effect.  It was breathtaking to watch and by halftime, Superman had 25.  But heading into the third quarter, I tweeted that it worried me that while Howard and Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge were both having historic first halves, leading to the tied score, Aldridge’s efforts were more sustainable while Howard’s were likely to taper off.  Lo and behold, Howard scored just 7 more points the rest of the way, while Aldridge continued his tear to the tune of another 40+ performance.  That whole train of analysis is not meant as a knock on Dwight.  32-14-4 is more than enough to expect from one’s superstar center.  My assertion was simply based upon the observation that Howard’s game is more prone to being stopped by adjustments (more on this) than Aldridge’s.  Howard made comments following Game 1 about needing to demand the ball more, but I never thought effort or intensity were really the problem.  Sure, he can flex his muscle and dunk the ball down as hard as possible, but a timely double-team or help defender here or there can completely throw him off.
  • If you’re a fan of the Houston Rockets, you’re wondering what an ‘adjustment’ is.  My apologies.  Allow me to explain as simply as possible.  An ‘adjustment’ is basically when, in a game, something is happening over and over again, perhaps by one of the teams, and then the other team’s coach says, “hey guys, we need to make an adjustment.  let’s stop doing ‘x’ and do ‘y’.”  And then typically, some different result ensues.  I’ve poured over the past two years worth of video from the Houston Rockets to find some tape to better illustrate the concept, but unfortunately, did not find anything.

  • James Harden had another disastrous night, going 6-19 from the floor to the tune of 18 points, and afterward in the postgame, not taking much of the accountability, and instead offering some tripe about ‘team defense’ (the irony.)  Harden’s attitude overall is a concern and a development I’ve kept an eye upon since late last season when the honeymoon first began ending, but there will be ample time for such existential thematics during the hot summer days after the season ends.  At this rate, that date will come much sooner than anyone had ever expected.  I do think there’s something though to helping put great players in a better position to where they can succeed (see: Erik Spoelstra’s adjustments in putting Lebron in the block after the Mavs stymied him up top in the Finals the previous year), but unfortunately, there isn’t time for that sort of thing right now.  If Houston’s season is to survive, Harden is simply going to have to muster up an effort the likes of which he is capable and put them on his back with his jumpshot, as he did to close the regular season.  Harden has looked so horrendous these past two games that it is easy to forget that he is still one of the three or four most brilliant offensive players in basketball.  I won’t talk about Harden’s defense because, had he put forth the offensive numbers one would have expected, Houston would be up 2-0 right now.
  • This is sort of the problem with freelance basketball.  Things change in the playoffs.  When your entire gameplan relies upon one player going rogue and just being brilliant, if the other team somehow stops him, you are f*****.
  • Where was this LaMarcus Aldridge in the 2006 NCAA tournament against Big Baby Davis and the LSU Tigers?  I jest.  Funny thing is, I’m not completely concerned about Aldridge’s play, thus far.  Yes*, I realize his game is built upon mid-range jumpshots, but that’s at a 45%~ accuracy, not a 95% clip, or whatever he’s going at right now.  Aldridge will regress at least slightly to the mean.  It’s just not physically possible to continue hitting 19 foot turnarounds in Omer Asik’s face for another 96 minutes.  The problem, as I stated last night, is that it’s probably already too late.  Even if Aldridge regresses, as expected, can Houston really win 4 out of 5?
  • *I’m going to sound like a complete jerk right now, but one of the more irritating things (especially when I’m already in a highly irritated mood) is when I make an observation on Twitter during a live-tweeting session and someone attempts to enlighten me upon the basis of a premise already implicitly understood.  I noted during a game late in the year that “Houston is really posting up Harden more these days and he’s looked fantastic; I’d like to see them run this play more” and someone replied informing me that it was because the Rockets’ philosophy was to avoid midrange shots.  Gee, thanks, I wasn’t aware of that salient point.  I’ll try to stay better informed in the future.
  • On Aldridge: I don’t know that I particularly have a problem with Houston’s coverage.  I agree that you can’t double because the last thing you want is to free up those Blazers outside shooters.  And to his credit, Asik has done about as much as anyone could possibly expect.  He’s fought Aldridge to his spots, pushed him out, denied driving lanes, and contested.  Aldridge has just killed him.  There is nothing you can do to stop a guy when he is hitting 19 foot fadeaways with a 7 footer draped all over him.  Except….
  • Would it kill Kevin McHale to switch things up every now and then?  I agree with not doubling on every play.  But why not send different looks every now and then the way the Blazers have done with Howard or the way every average to above average coach since the history of professional sports has done in the face of daunting situations…?  Just send a double every now and then, or after he makes his move, to throw off his rhythm.  Would it kill anyone to just try that?
  • It should be properly recognized what Aldridge is doing right now: he has single handedly decimated two of the top five interior defenders in basketball, in concert.  It is pretty much the exact equivalent of taking Dennis Rodman and David Robinson to the woodshed.  That actually puts Dream’s accomplishments in ’95 in perspective as he did it over the course of an entire series, not just two games.  And that’s why I expect Aldridge to regress to the mean.
  • There are higher level philosophical problems with the Rockets right now which will need to be addressed over the summer but which, if inspected, should evoke no surprise as to their current plight.  To begin, I began having slight doubts this year about the “3’s and inside shots only” philosophy as evidence seemed to mount that it was more of a lowest common denominator launchpad to lift a mediocre team to respectability rather than to lift a good team to elite status.  To put this as simply as possible, as the stakes rise, and the competition gets better, those 3’s and paint shots are harder to come by, and open pockets on the court must be sought out.  It’s how Lebron won the title in Game 7 after the Spurs took away his driving lanes.  I don’t think the Rockets can win a title without midrange shots, but, of more immediate relevance, for a team which relies upon the 3 point shot, Houston just doesn’t have good shooters.  Harden struggled all year before his late burst, and Parsons (he of the awkward release where it looks like the ball is coming off the side of his hand) is the epitome of ‘streaky.’  What’s happening probably shouldn’t come as a surprise but again, we have all summer to discuss the philosophical underpinnings.  For now, I’d like to see Troy Daniels get a chance because Houston desperately needs someone who can knock down a shot, on the court.
  • Moreso than the shooting, a greater problem regarding which I’ve been writing for some time is that Houston has no set offense.  Bill Simmons famously said “when I watch Houston play, it almost looks like they don’t even practice…as if they just roll out the ball and play.”  And the remembrance of that quotation is conjured upon every single possession late in the fourth quarter of a close game.  Make no mistake, Houston’s crunch-time offense has been a complete and utter disaster.
  • Houston runs a read-and-react where, rather than running set plays, players are expected to react to circumstances within the defense to make the right play with the ball.  It can be beautiful, in theory, and typically is beautiful early in games when the pressure is off.  But my thesis is, essentially unless you have inherently smart players, or veteran players, they can’t be expected to make volitional decisions during pressure situations because inevitably, said pressure will interfere with their decision-making processes.  That’s why so often, f***, during every single close game, the Rockets offense looks so out of sorts with players holding the ball, unsure of what to do.  It’s not that the players are inherently selfish or that they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing…it’s that the pressure gets to them and when the expectation is to make a decision, they crumble mentally.  That’s why, so often, f***, during every single game, the end result is just James Harden taking it upon himself and trying to bull his way in.  He’s the only one with the fortitude to try something (or maybe the only one not scared to get yelled at if he messes up.)  Late in the year, Harden was so damn brilliant that he was able to just lift the team by doing this.  But in the playoffs, against better competition, it hasn’t been possible.  It won’t be possible in the future in coming years, if the Rockets somehow survive this.  The solution is not to “just move the ball, guys, move the ball” as Kevin McHale offers.  Again, the players are not inherently selfish.  The solution is to have some muscle memory action where players don’t have to think and can just know what to do because they’ve done it a million times.  If you’re a young player, you have to know, “okay, this is what we did in practice every day, this is what I do here,” and just go through that motion and things will run smoothly.  Read-and-react is well and great if you have 5 Magic Johnsons.  But for a young team, I don’t think this philosophy is going to work.  Players have to have something they can turn to which has already been ingrained.  I’ve bolded this entire paragraph because I feel, if you are to take away anything from this piece, I want it to be this.
  • Good grief, it’s depressing that we are here discussing thematic philosophical issues rather than the series itself.  I didn’t think it would come to this, but it has.  This series is likely over.
  • On that above point, it is kind of chilling hearing Chris Webber, a veteran of many wars, articulate essentially the same thing regarding the Rockets’ lack of set plays.  Dude was downright perplexed trying to figure out what the hell Houston was doing.
  • I can’t think of too many examples on par with last night of a team coming out completely unprepared to play basketball.  Some of those late sequences in the fourth were downright embarrassing.  There was a span of plays where, in succession, Houston gave up a fastbreak layup after a made free throw, Jeremy Lin inexplicably fouled when the Rockets were down just ‘3’ with 30 seconds remaining, and then Harden got called for an offensive foul after another joke of a play out of a timeout.  Downright embarrassing.  When you look that bad repeatedly late in games, coaching is the only culprit and right now, the Rockets have looked as if they haven’t even been coached.  You can bet Kevin McHale will be gone if/when Houston goes on to lose this series, so perhaps that might be somewhat of a silver lining.  Entering the postseason, one of the unspoken fears among many was that coaching would be Houston’s achilles heel….I just thought it would be in the next round against Poppovich and not so soon.  McHale has his qualities: the players respect him and he’s a leader of men, yada yada yada, but again, like the mid-range commentary, when the stakes are raised, you need a tactician, not a motivational speaker.  The Rockets just can’t win like this right now.  Even Jordan and Kobe needed the triangle.  Even Lebron needed Spoelstra reinventing the Heat offense.  You just can’t roll the ball out, clap, and expect to win.  You just can’t.  This league is too damn hard.
  • To hammer home that point above, when a guy commits a foul in a one possession game with more than 24 seconds left on the game clock, that’s symptomatic of nothing else but poor coaching.  It’s as simple as that.  It is as simple as that.  No communication, no awareness, nothing.
  • Why have we not seen the Howard-Harden pick and roll, the play which was essentially Houston’s selling point to Dwight Howard this summer during their pitch?  Howard is too liable to get fouled, you say?  Then why haven’t we seen the Lin-Harden pick and roll?  That latter play was one which had shockingly efficient results during the year and as recently as…GAME ONE…why didn’t we see it again?
  • I had hoped to break down some film for this piece, but I’m running short on time.  But I’ll leave you all with this: I don’t think this series will end in a sweep.  Houston is too damn talented, individually, despite how poorly they are coached.  Both Harden and Aldridge will revert closer to the mean, shifting Houston’s odds.  The question now, as loath as I am to give in to platitude, becomes one of pride.  Houston has the talent to at least win another game.  But have they given up or will they continue fighting?  While expecting tactical adjustments from McHale might be a bit much to ask for, there is precedent for drastic personnel changes.  See the playoffs last year where he went to the small lineup.  Right now, I think you’ll see them change the lineup up because at this point, they have nothing to lose.  This series is most likely over but Houston has to keep fighting until the very end.  They have the talent to pull this off as daunting as the odds may seem.
  • That’s all for now.  Expect more this afternoon.  The link to the piece, as is the case with all of our coverage, will be tweeted out when it hits the press.  Stay safe, my friends.  And drink responsibly.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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