Previewing Rockets/Thunder: The Chaos Principle and ‘3rd and long’

It all starts tomorrow.  The matchup for which the national media had been begging.  If the Rockets somehow pull it off, by some act of divine intervention, it would surely be the greatest upset in NBA history.  What distinguishes this from Golden State over Dallas (currently considered the greatest upset) is the storyline element of the banished son returning to conquer and reclaim disinherited lands.  Or something like that.

In my mind, there are only a few ways this series can play out.  If Houston wins game 1, either Houston or Oklahoma City will win in 7.  If Oklahoma City wins game 1, Houston’s only chance at winning a game in the series is in Game 3, and the Thunder will win the series in either 4 or 5 games.  Thus, there is only one scenario by which Houston can win this series.  Note that this analysis was in no way based on any relevant mathematical data and was largely pulled out of my ass and thought up in the shower this morning.

This is basically the football equivalent of ‘3rd and long.’  For those of you unfamiliar with football, ‘3rd and long’ is a scenario which, when the Houston Texans are on 3rd down and in need of over 20 yards to reach the 1st down marker, essentially calls for Matt Schaub to hand the ball off to his running back  for a gain of like five inches.  The team then punts the ball on the next possession.  This is a set of events which should be avoided in all aspects of life.

When the odds are stacked against you, to succeed, you can’t play it safe.  You must introduce chaos and random variables to improve your chances at winning.  In example, Oklahoma City, by any evaluative measure, is a far, far, far better team than the Houston Rockets.  If the two teams were to play 10 times, with no variables (ie: playing the same way they played in the regular season) the probability would hold that the Thunder would win a majority, based on the historical data available (ie: everything that just happened over the last 82 games).  Thus, the logic would bear that the Rockets, to increase their odds at winning, would increase variables to escape the set probability.  Again, doing what’s expected has already proven to be inferior and will bear out a predictable outcome.  (Through this, we can also hereby conclude that because this is what the logic holds, Kevin McHale will do the complete opposite.  I kid, I kid.  I won’t go there for today.)

How can the Rockets introduce variables?  Well, for one, they can shoot more 3’s.  By intrinsic nature, an inordinate volume of 3’s always give the inferior opponent a greater chance against his counterpart just due to the greater expected value of each shot, in comparison to 2 pointers.  But this is obvious – they’ll probably do this.  What else can they do?

  1. They can gamble for more steals.  If they play it safe, and play their game, they can’t beat the Thunder.  The Thunder on their game are a better team than the Rockets on their game.
  2. They can full-court press: If I were Houston, I would manufacture the minutes to where every one of Beverley’s minutes is against Westbrook, and then I would have Beverley trap Westbrook fullcourt the entire time.  I don’t expect this to happen.
  3. I would only bench Lin when Westbrook is on the court (ie: if Westbrook is on the bench, Lin should never be on the bench.)  This has the effect of, aside from pitting Beverley’s minutes against Westbrook’s, giving Lin as many repetitions against inferior defenders.  Lin’s opportunities must be maximized.  This too is something I have no expectation of the coaching staff doing.

Jeremy Lin, as the only player other than Harden on this team who can create his own shot, is the key to the Rockets’ chances.  Asik and Parsons will likely give you what you are expecting.  Harden will probably average 30 and could be efficient but may also not be.  The rookies and Greg Smith, aside from an emotional Game 3, will most likely provide very little.  Delfino and Garcia I think will explode in at least one of the home games.  There will be ISOs in close games.  And there will be tons and tons of smallball, particularly because a) the Thunder do not have a lowpost scorer and b) as aforementioned, it is highly likely that the rookies will provide nothing.  (In fact, as I type this, I’d almost consider ditching everything and starting Delfino at power forward with Garcia as his backup and just tossing aside the rookies altogether.  That adds more chaos.)

In any event, we forget that in the one game in which the Rockets beat the Thunder, while Harden had 46, Lin had 29.  In fact, when Lin plays well, the Rockets almost always win.  If the Rockets are going to even have any chance in hell of winning this series, there will almost have to be sustained spurts of Linsanity.  He will have to be given freedom to operate.  However, aside from what we saw in the regular season, there is close to no chance of said freedom being given, simply due to the fact that, while logic may dictate otherwise during underdog settings, coaches tend to become even more conservative in the postseason. (More on this below).  In essence, they need to get Lin going but I don’t expect it to happen.

The upside to this is that Beverley, a great defender, will get plenty of time against Westbrook.  Of course, this ignores the fact that Lin, against conventional wisdom, is actually a more than capable defender, having forced Westbrook into 41% shooting and almost 5 turnovers per game in their head to head meetings.

Explanation: As explained, the logic holds that the best chance at winning would be to avoid the norms and go off cue.  But conversely, coaches typically do the opposite and become even more conservative.  This is largely due to the overconfidence bias whereby the actor holds an irrational belief in his abilities.  Coaches think that to win, they have to play the perfect game, and by extension, they think that there is a greater chance of their team playing the perfect game than winning by changing everything up.

Case in point: the Indiana game at Toyota Center.  Harden was completely bottled up by Paul George, the offense was stagnant, and the team was down but not out.  Instead of bringing in Lin, the only other player that can create a shot, McHale stuck with Beverley and continued feeding Harden.  His rationale was likely that “we have a better chance of doing a good job of what we do than succeeding by doing something different.”  I disagree with this thinking, but I digress as we’ve already beaten this point to death.

I actually give the Rockets a 50% chance to win Game 1.  We’ll see what happens after that, but I think the Thunder will come out sleeping and Harden will come out absolutely pissed.  If that’s enough to sustain the team for 48 minutes will be up to how the other factors bear out.



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

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