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Huq’s Pen: And so we live to see another day

  • That’s the beauty of professional sports.  It’s a game of seconds, of inches, of sheer luck.  If Ray Allen doesn’t hit that miraculous ‘3’ in Game 6 of the Finals last year, the narrative surrounding Lebron isn’t whether he’ll challenge for GOAT status but whether he’s one of the greatest chokers of all-time.  If Troy Daniels doesn’t hit that shot, if Jeremy Lin doesn’t scoop up the Harden turnover to find Daniels, this post would entirely be about Carmelo Anthony and the team’s summer coaching search.  Instead, we have a series again and the Rockets live to see another day.
  • Before last night’s game, this is what I said I wanted to see:  “This is all you can hope for right now: first, pride, as I already explained.  You have to hope the team hasn’t given up.  Second, reversion (re: Aldridge), as I explained.  Third, some lineup changes.  I think there’s a good chance you could see Motiejunas and perhaps Daniels in the place of Garcia.  McHale has shown a willingness to make extreme lineup changes in these circumstances.  You could also see different versions of small-ball.  Fourth, you have to hope for “basic” adjustments.  Again, it’s too much to ask for anything intricate, but they can change their pick and roll coverage, as Pina outlined in his piece last night.  Having the ‘bigs’ stay at home on Aldridge is basic and implementable and could be more than enough to tilt the odds.”  By and large, I’m satisfied.  They obviously showed up to play; we got the reversion with Harden, despite shooting poorly, putting up points, and Aldridge getting shut down; we got the lineup changes with Asik starting in place of Jones and Daniels replacing Garcia; and we got the “basic” adjustments.  Howard stayed home on the pick and roll (rather than showing as he had been in the first two games) and the team began bringing a second big from the weakside to help on Aldridge after he had already made his move.  In the first games, Aldridge was often alone on an island.  I’m overall very happy with the coverage on Aldridge and I think his dropoff was to be expected.  It just was not sustainable for him to continue torching a duo of two of the top interior defenders in basketball, for three straight games.  If he hits those fallaway 19 footers with Asik in his face, I can live with it.  But I’m not willing to double on the catch to prevent those shots.

  • More from yesterday: “But all of those missed rotations and defensive miscues you kept seeing, over and over, on Wednesday night?  Forget about seeing that stuff fixed.  It’s just too late.  Those errors are just emblematic of a poorly coached, ill-prepared team and there’s nothing that can be done about any of that right now.  That is the stuff that becomes ingrained in practice and its become clear the Rockets haven’t been practicing any of it, to date.  Again, all you can hope for are some basic pick and roll coverage tweaks.”  And again, last night, we saw more of the same.  Houston repeatedly got killed in transition and on the glass, early on as, as has been the case all year, their rotations were extremely messy.  Like I said yesterday, though, I can’t complain.  At this point, it is what it is.  You can’t expect this team to suddenly fix major identity issues halfway through a playoff series.  Smaller adjustments, such as pick and roll coverage, can be altered on the fly, but its just unrealistic right now to bitch about rotations.  If they didn’t learn it in the year, they won’t learn it now.  You just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
  • One thing I noticed was that the Rockets were having Asik show on the guard while Howard exclusively stayed at home on Aldridge when the latter two were paired.  I don’t know how I feel about this.  While Asik is essentially set to earn $15million next year because of his ability in those situations, the coverage resulted in some wide open Aldridge jumpers.  He missed them but I don’t like the thought of giving him those looks and letting him get a rhythm.  More on this.*
  • The Rockets have several major defensive problems right now.  First, the transition defense about which I already wrote and about which you just can’t worry about – it’s too late at this point.  But among fixable things, heading into Game 4: a) because they are needing to bring Howard weakside to double on Aldridge, Robin Lopez or even Joel Freeland have been left all alone under the hoop for offensive boards.  I don’t know what the answer is for this.  It’s easier said than done to just say “put a body on him”…and I am a staunch proponent of continuing to double Aldridge off the weakside.  b) the other problem manifested itself in overtime when, without Asik in the game, with Howard as the lone big and pulled out to the perimeter checking Aldridge, Houston had absolutely zero rim protection.  For normal NBA teams, this wouldn’t be an existential crisis, but for the Rockets, who feature poor perimeter defenders all across the lineup, it was a near death sentence.  Parsons, before he fouled out (which might have been the biggest blessing of the year), and Harden, got absolutely torched as Batum and Lillard literally walked to the basket with no big man waiting.  More on this in the next bullet point.
  • Obviously, I understand the merits of this lineup.  Not only did it allow the Rockets to play their best offensive players (Harden, Lin, Howard, Beverley, Parsons) but, it also took Robin Lopez out of the game.  I don’t know if I like this strategy.  In fact, I wish they wouldn’t go small like this and would prefer they just keep Asik in.  Why?  Because, despite the lineup change, they aren’t really utilizing the benefits of the small lineup.  They were still going 1-4 flat every single time, so it’s not like they had Portland on its heels because of the small lineup.  With Asik in, while the spacing is compromised, you can just continue to run the 1-4 flat to your heart’s delight.  I’d say that what the Rockets gain defensively from having Asik in alongside Howard serves more in the aggregate, against this Blazers team, than what they gain offensively having him on the bench.  Seriously.  I know we are all exuberant right now because of the win, but the Rockets almost lost that game last night because of their atrocious defense…
  • …and because of their atrocious offense.  Again, we saw nothing but 1-4 flats regarding which Jeff Van Gundy ironically remarked, “I don’t like that play.”  But, like the transition defense, I’m not going to bitch about it because, if you read Red94, I’ve already spent enough time on these pages doing that.  It is what it is at this point.  This is who the Rockets are.  They are going to ISO Harden down the stretch, for better or worse, no point in wasting my breath here.  You just have to pray he hits shots.
  • Chandler Parsons is losing a lot of money right now.
  •  We finally saw the Harden/Howard ‘pick and roll’ last night, the play which a) was the selling point of the Howard free agency pitch and b) was Houston’s most statistically potent on the year.  Predictably, the Blazers had no answer as each time it was run, it either resulted in a Howard dunk, or something else positive.  A few thoughts here: it’s so mind numbingly bizarre that it’s almost just funny that running the Harden/Howard pick and roll going into Game f****** three of the playoffs was an adjustment.  How is that not your bread and butter?  Hmm, let’s run a play where we can get our two best players–who both happen to be among the ten best players in the league–both involved in concert to where their abilities can provide synergistic effects.  What a f****** brilliantly novel concept!  This is what bothers me: I devoted a paragraph–and it deserved far, far more–above to my concerns over Aldridge-Lillard pick and roll coverage because quite frankly, it scares the sh** out of me wondering how to stop it.  Do you show?  Do you stay?  If Howard/Asik stay back, Lillard is going to go nuts, as he did.  That’s how frightening the ‘pick and roll’ is as a play, and I can guarantee you, there are Blazers blogs right now dissecting the Howard/Harden pick and roll.  So why wouldn’t you run it?
  • I get the idea that you don’t want Howard involved because of the free throw shooting concerns.  Guys, I get that.  But I’d venture to argue that the expected value of that play, even with the threat of Howard missing free throws, is greater than the expected value of the 1-4 flat.  If Howard’s expected free throw rate is 50%, and the probability of him getting fouled, even at a loose estimate is 50%, the chances of something “good” happening still outweigh the return of the ISO.  But again, I’m just bitching for no reason because they won’t change this.
  •  The Rockets should be up 2-1 right now and very well could be down 0-3 as they blew yet another late game lead.  This is a huge, huge, huge problem.  Some of you said I need to stop whining.  That’s fine if you want to keep your head in the sand willfully ignorant about some of the serious problems on the court right now.  Hey, I’m excited about Daniels buzzer-beater too.  We can keep celebrating that.  But you don’t win championships or even series’ depending on lucky broken plays and ignoring actual late-game execution.
  • In summary, here’s what I’ve conceded: transition defense, defensive rebounding, and late game offense aren’t going to change.  But there are small adjustments that can be made for Game 4.  1) continue the coverage schemes on Aldridge: weakside help with Asik as the primary defender 2) I’d like to see Asik stay at home on Aldridge the way Howard does when he’s guarding him 3) more Daniels, quicker hook on Parsons if he isn’t hitting his shots 4) less small-ball.  To be honest, I want to see as much Asik-Howard together on the court as possible.
  • The Rockets are the more individually talented of these two teams.  They should not be losing this series.  We have to hope that that individual talent rises to the top once again in Game 4.

 

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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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