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Huq’s Pen: How the Houston Rockets went down in predictably clueless fashion

  • Any way you want to look at it, the Houston Rockets’ 2013-2014 season was an abject failure.  No amount of revisionist apologetics can change that.  This team’s end game, the litmus test by which it would be judged, was postseason success.  No, a title wasn’t the bar.  But progress could only be defined as achieving newer heights….at least making the second round.  Instead, the Rockets went down last night in Game 6 of the first round, just as they had one year ago, only this time they were the favorite, matched up against the Conference foe who presented the most favorable matchup.
  • I thought about it last night and I realized I’m not really heartbroken about the result.  I’m very sad, yes; disappointed, of course.  But its much different this time than it was back in 1997 when I was 12 and Damian Lillard was white and named John Stockton and got free due to a Karl Malone bearhug on Clyde Drexler rather than overall coaching ineptitude.  It’s much different.  It was socially acceptable to cry at that age, but apart from that, those Rockets were one game away from the Finals and had a legitimate chance to win the whole thing against a Bulls team against whom they historically fared well.  These Rockets?  Even pushing this thing to six games was house money the way they laid eggs in the first two, squandering the home-court advantage.  I’m not heartbroken this time because it quickly became clear early in this series that this team was too glaringly flawed to do anything of significance this season – we were just hoping for the ride to not end.  I, of course, naively predicted Houston in 5, willfully ignoring the problems that plagued this team all year, problems which the Rockets’ superior talent was able to overcome during the regular campaign, and problems which are skillfully exploited in the postseason when attention to detail becomes a premium.  For those who watched the season, really, none of this should come as a surprise.  The way it went down, the only surprise should be the irony that it happened exactly the way it was going to go down all along.

  • The Rockets lost the season on a play, not where they were just beaten by a great individual effort, but where they didn’t even seem to have a coherent strategy, as has been the case all series long.  For Damian Lillard to be that wide open is indefensible.  Here’s the play:

We are going to break this down now frame by frame to see what went wrong.

The first odd thing to note here is that Beverley actually starts out on Lillard with Parsons on Mo Williams.  But James Harden appears to be ordering a switch before the inbound.  Why?

Notice now that upon Harden’s command, the two Rockets defenders have switched.  That whole odd sequence is captured better with this GIF:

Why do they come out of the timeout not knowing their assignments?  More troubling, why is Harden the defensive strategist?  I want to think that seeing the Blazers set up, Harden ordered Parsons onto Lillard anticipating the need for a later switch, eventually pitting Beverley onto Lillard.  But that switch of course never happened.  Just bizarre.

Now with this set up, after Mo Williams turns, with no time on the clock for a pass, it seems to have become clear what’s about to happen.  Unfortunately, the Rockets don’t practice, so they are unprepared.

A better shot above of the Blazers now bunched up as Lillard appears set to come off a double screen.

Now it is already too late.  The second screen, set by Mathews, would have snuffed out Beverley had he tried to switch.  The logical thing here would have been Harden switching to Lillard, especially with just .9 left.  But again, the Rockets don’t practice so they aren’t prepared for in-game situations.  Parsons, as you see, doesn’t even have a chance.

And lastly, you see, Parsons isn’t even in the vicinity of Lillard when he receives the catch.

So many things about that sequence are so troubling.  Many people have noted that there was no purpose in having Jones guard the inbound.  I disagree.  That’s pretty standard and moreover, the pass could have still gone into Aldridge with Lillard as the decoy.  What bothers me most is that Lin wasn’t in the game.  This play was just a continuation of Kevin McHale’s long-held fetish of having Parsons guard point guards when that strategy hasn’t ever seemed to work; Lillard abused the latter earlier in the series as well.  You at least have to have one of Beverley or Lin on Lillard to give yourself a chance.  Parsons gives you no chance and never has against small point guards.

Why did Harden order a switch before the inbound?  Did these guys really come out of the timeout not knowing their assignments?  Did they really come out of a timeout not knowing who was covering the other team’s first option?

Watching that postgame clip of McHale, he seemed pretty satisfied with the execution, saying, “Lillard just took off running and got the first step.  Chandler just never caught up.”  It seems, from McHale’s comments, that the plan all along was to have Chandler on Lillard and to have him fight through the pick.  Why he thought that would work is beyond me.

  • The first order of business for this franchise this offseason will be finding a real coach.  That’s not to say that Kevin McHale is without merit.  He was a good hire for his time, signed when the team was in need of a figurehead to usher it through a painful rebuilding stage.  But now, with the foundation set, the Rockets can ill afford to waste more precious years of Dwight Howard’s prime without a tactician befitting of their players’ superstar talents.
  • You’re usually sad your team loses because, obviously, it means they have been eliminated and won’t be winning the title.  But I’m sad for different reasons this time around and can finally relate to the fans of other teams, notably the Spurs.  For one, this was the first year since maybe 2009 when Houston’s end game was the postseason.  In years past, we were excited to see what talent would be acquired in the offseason and how it would mesh in the regular season; we anticipated the growth of our young players.  But now, the regular year is just a drag.  Nothing else matters except getting back to May.  Not only that, but yet another year of Dwight Howard’s precious prime has been wasted.  Many of you scoff at the notion of Dwight Howard’s demise, but it is a very apparent thing.  To wit, he has shown progress offensively, even statistically speaking.  But close observation, particularly defensively, shows he is no longer the same man he was just three years ago.  The tape from Games 1 and 2 shows Howard laboring to rotate back to LaMarcus Aldridge after showing on the pick and roll.  In ’09 and ’10, Dwight would regularly blow those plays up by himself.  Yeah, you still see the blocks at the rim and the points, but the little things like the pick and roll coverage are no longer there.  That is depressing but is a reality of life.
  • And of course, ‘Melo Watch 2014 becomes effective immediately.  There will be ample time for speculation of such possibility, but to me, the decision over whether this would be a wise idea stems from one concern: can Chandler Parsons and James Harden coexist?  Forrest Walker opined on our latest podcast that with an actual defensive strategy, the two wings indeed could.  I am not so sure.  And if a more natural fit would be replacing Parsons with a defensive small forward, the logical extension would be the acquisition of an offensive oriented power forward.  Enter Anthony who would give new meaning to the term ‘stretch 4.’  I think the team is set with Howard, Harden, and Beverley at three of the five positions.  They will need to sort out the forward slots to gain my confidence.  But a coaching change is the first order of business.

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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.