The date was Wednesday, April 11, 2012. The Houston Rockets sat seven games above .500 in the 2011-2012 NBA season, set to see the playoffs for the first time since 2009. With only nine games left in the season, all they needed to do to face San Antonio in round one was to win four of those games. All they needed to do was keep up the winning pace they had all season. And then they dropped six games in a row. Sitting at seventh with a chance at sixth, will this year’s Houston Rockets share that fate?
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Rockets have won five of their nine games, including a thriller against Oklahoma City, and a brutal blowout against Dallas. But the other seven games have included heartbreaking losses against teams with worse records, like a Milwaukee, Washington, Dallas and Phoenix. Wins in Golden State and Orlando have been close affairs. Are the Rockets of 2013 in danger of dropping from 7th to 9th in the west? With the Los Angeles Lakers a mere game behind them, and 9th seed Utah only a game and a half back, are the Rockets on a slippery slope to 9th place for the 4th year running?The Rockets haven’t looked very good lately. The trade that brought Thomas Robinson to Houston seems to have disrupted some of the chemistry that led the Rockets to huge wins before the break. They only team they’ve blown out since has been a Dallas Mavericks team that turned around to edge out the Rockets in the very next game. Donatas Motiejunas, as much potential as he may have, is clearly new to NBA basketball. He gets in foul trouble, gets winded quickly, and misses rotations. Without the two power forwards ahead of him in the rotation, Houston just lost stability, scoring and defense at that position. Francisco Garcia is a cagey veteran, but hasn’t shown himself to be a meaningful upgrade over James Anderson yet. Patrick Beverley is a good option as a backup point guard, but Toney Douglas provided a level of defensive intensity Beverley hasn’t matched.A loss against the Phoenix Suns isn’t a good look for a team seeking a playoff berth, especially when the Rockets not names James Harden shot 37% from the floor. And that’s against a team defense in the bottom third of the league. Eye tests aren’t coming back very positive, but what about stat tests? Surely, the Rockets have fallen off since the all-star break.The Rockets’ average margin of victory has risen over two points a game since the break, from 2.9 to 5.4.Well, perhaps that’s just an artifact of that huge Mavs blowout. Thirty-three points will tend to inflate averages. Their shooting must have cooled off since then to account for these close games.Their field goal percentage has improved by 1.6%. They’re shooting 6.9% better from three. Their effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage have both hiked up by more than 3%. In fact, the Rockets have recently improved in nearly every metric. Even their efficiency differential has climbed. 5-4 is even a better winning percentage than their pre-break 29-26. Then why do they look so bad to the eye? Why are most of these games close?
The most likely answer is defense. At the same time as the Rockets have increased their offensive efficiency every month (up to a truly eye-popping 114.9 in March), they’ve been dropping in defensive prowess. march is the first Month they’ve improved defensively over the previous month, and it’s been a drop from a ghastly 108.7 in February to an only slightly less horrifying 106.2. As the Rockets have learned how to run and gun at a truly momentous pace, they’ve paid for it on the defensive end. If a team can make a slightly above average amount of their open shots, they can make up that six point differential with only a few hits, bringing the high-flying Rockets down to earth.And on some nights, like the second night of a back to back, the Rockets’ turbo-charged offensive engine runs out of gas. Their offensive rating crashes and burns, falling to a bottom-five rating of 98.4. In fact, the Rockets are a dismal 5-12 on the second night of back to back games. The loss to the Suns looks predictable in hindsight. So what, then, does all this tell us about the last 18 games of the season? Will this year’s playoff push end in a shove out of the standings yet again?Despite suffering some disappointing losses, there’s little reason to assume the worst. The Rockets have only three more of the poisonous back to back games left, against the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets. While those are very difficult teams to beat with no rest, the Rockets would be hard-pressed to defeat them in the best of situations. The other fifteen remaining games should be subject to the increasingly potent barrage of scoring the Rockets unleash. Utah, Portland and Dallas all could make a playoff push, but all of them have much harder schedules than Houston. Even a collapse like last year’s might not be enough to land in 9th. The Rockets actually aren’t in much trouble at all, despite some ugly losses. In short, they just need to keep calm and carry on scoring.