Huq’s Pen: The five stages of grief

  • I don’t really know what to tell you guys.  I don’t really have the energy to break down a play or anything, right now.  Maybe that will change in the next 48 hours.  But right now I’m just straight up depressed.  In the Kubler-Ross model, I’m somewhere between depression and acceptance.  Before the series began, I was in stage 1: denial.  I predicted Houston in 5 because I decided to turn a blind eye to some of the glaring warning signs coming from this team.  After the losses in Game 1 and Game 2, I felt anger.  I reached the bargaining phase right before and then after Game 3: “we can’t expect major adjustments like the team making crisp defensive rotations or running anything resembling a coherent offense down the stretch, but maybe they can make some basic tweaks and we’ll be fine.”  The miraculous win actually made this worse, leading to delusions of grandeur.  And now here we are, depression and acceptance.  It is what it is.  I’ll watch, I’ll cheer, I’ll be here the whole way.  But I’m human too.  I don’t have it in me to hold out hope on the team pulling this out.  If it happens, it happens.  But I just don’t have the energy to keep hoping – not with the way the team has lost these three games.
  • I think for me, what hurts the most, is seeing Dwight Howard and knowing there aren’t many more years left in the tank and one of them is about to potentially be completely wasted.  That block late in the game when he dialed the clock back to 2010 and completely erased Nicolas Batum was one of the most awe-inspiring sequences I’ve ever seen in the twenty years I’ve been a fan of this team.  There’s just something about a superstar big man that gives you chills.  And it’s going to be wasted.

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When Houston Rockets brass made its free agency pitch to Dwight Howard this past summer, many of the details of that meeting were later leaked.  One point of emphasis upon which management stressed was the synergistic potential of Howard with James Harden, in the pick and roll.  The thinking went that because Howard was a year or so removed from being the best pick and roll finisher in the league, and Harden was statistically one of the best pick and roll ball-handlers, the two players together could form a devastating combination.

In Games 1 and 2 of this series, if we saw the two superstars collaborate on that aforementioned set at all, I don’t remember it.  But in Game 3, we–and the Blazers–were treated to a few doses of Howard/Harden, early on.  Predictably, Portland showed no signs of stopping the play as on almost every attempt, something positive occurred (Howard lost the ball on one play because Harden bounced the pass to him rather than lobbing it.)  Curiously, down the stretch late in the game, we never saw the play run again.

The pick and roll is the simplest play in basketball.  It is also one of the most impossible to defend, depending upon who all is involved.

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The play begins with Harden setting up inside, rather than uptop, with Howard feeding him.  This is crucial.  As you’ll see later, if the play is run from uptop, Howard would need to take a few dribbles upon receiving the pass, increasing the probability of error.  Posting up Harden keeps the play clean.

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  • 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.

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Huq’s Pen: Preparations for Game 3

  • It is 9:10 PM right now at the time of writing.  When Red94 goes to press, it will likely be sometime early Friday morning.  I thought I would have cooled off from my rage from this morning (Thursday morning), but having read Michael Pina’s piece just now on Houston’s defensive coverage schemes on LaMarcus Aldridge, I’m seething.  Until then, I had not yet had time to examine the tape from last night.  More on this later.
  • When things are going bad, the coach is usually the inevitable scapegoat,  even when such blame is unwarranted.  I hate that.  But I should note, in my adult life following this team, I never once before McHale blamed the team’s failures upon its coach.  Rick Adelman and Jeff Van Gundy had their flaws, yes.  But never did I feel that either man was a large part of the reason why the team had lost or was losing.  In the case of Van Gundy, he drove me mad with his myopic outlook to team management – I still have not forgiven him for the night in Denver when he played David Wesley and Juwan Howard heavy minutes down the stretch of a meaningless win, leading to the forfeit of a draft slot which could have nabbed Brandon Roy.  But there was not a single night during his tenure here that I said to myself, “man, the Rockets just didn’t come ready to play today.”  In fact, that was the one thing you could point to with Van Gundy.  He always had his troops ready to play.  Against the Lakers in the first round, in ’04, I vividly remember feeling as if the team had six players on the court, during defensive stretches.  That’s how on-point the balded one had his gang with their rotations.  And this was with some of the dumbest players in the league like Steve Francis and the infamous Kelvin Cato playing huge minutes.

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An hour or so after Game 2’s final horn—after dust settled, blood dried, and small children stopped crying—Chandler Parsons stood in front of his locker, showered, dressed in clean clothes, all ready to explain the unexpected carnage the world had just witnessed on national television.

A few minutes into the scrum, a reporter asks Parsons about Portland’s sweet, soul-crushing big man, LaMarcus Aldridge. With lifeless eyes, Parsons scratches his beard and gives an answer:

…ain’t nobody in the world who can guard him one-on-one right now. You can’t even really knock Terrence, or Omer or Dwight’s defense because they’re playing him tough and contesting everything. There’s nothing much left to do besides just straight up double-teaming him to get the ball out of his hands and make their other guys beat us.

This wasn’t hyperbole. It wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t an excuse. Aldridge is out of this world right now, torturing one fan base while another dances on his shoulders. He has 89 points in 81 playoff minutes, shooting 59.3% from the floor with a 41.6 PER. Nobody has a higher True Shooting percentage or Offensive Rating. Nobody has more Win Shares. His shot chart resembles a well-manicured lawn.

Aldridge is just the third player to score at least 40 points in Games 1 and 2 on the road in NBA playoff history, joining Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady. Furthermore: Only four other players in NBA history have scored at least 89 points in their first two games of a playoff season: Jordan (112 points in the 1986 playoffs and 105 in the 1988 playoffs), Jerry West (101 in the 1965 playoffs), Elgin Baylor (89 in the 1961 playoffs), and McGrady (89 in the 2003 playoffs). What Aldridge is doing happens about once every 20 years.

Which brings us to the million dollar question. How do the Houston Rockets stop him? Aldridge is a mid-range specialist. His sweet spot gives analytical NBA thinkers a migraine. If Omer Asik or Dwight Howard puts a knee in Aldridge’s behind and nudges him out to 18 feet, then gets a hand in his face to strongly contest an off balance jumper, there’s no shame if the ball goes in. This is good defense. But when this exact sequence happens roughly 19 possessions in a row, it’s time to try something else.

Here’s a look at how the Rockets guarded Aldridge in Game 2, and what they might want to try as the series heads to the Pacific Northwest. [read more...]

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