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The Rockets and the bullies

Everyone says that brain beats brawn. The saying is “mind over matter,” Psychic type beats Fighting type, and any other platitudes and aphorisms offer succor to the underweight but overbrained kids of the world. That same theory supposedly applies to the NBA, a place where Moneyball is sometimes Moreyball and three pointers are always good. But what about in practice? When push comes to shove, push comes to shove on the court, and another truism takes precedence for the Houston Rockets.

Might makes right.

Think back to school. There’s a reason that we tell the brainy kids that computer nerds make millions. The reason we advertise the future is because the present is pretty bleak. The bruisers bruise and the twerps get swirlies. The same story is true for the Rockets, a team that’s all about trying to play a metagame while some opponents are playing mosh pit. Why are the Rockets so vulnerable to bullies and how do they stop them?

Several teams in the NBA use raw size and power to manhandle their opponents. The Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies rank high among them, but this category also includes the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. All of these teams feature big, physical players, with the odd inclusion of the Miami Heat, a team who plays small but beats you up at a high level.Roy Hibbert from Indiana, Marc Gasol from Memphis, Kendrick Perkins from OKC, Joakim Noah from Chicago and Andrew Bogut from Oakland all patrol the paint and lay out punishment. DeAndre Jordan is the odd man out, and he’s still willing to get physical down low despite his middling defense.

These teams present the axis of failure for the Rockets, a grouping against which the Rockets have 7 wins and 10 losses. In fact, this group includes the only teams the Rockets have losing records against, with the exception of the Philadelphia 76ers (who are 1-0 against Houston on the backs of a bizarre early season overtime game that’s hard to even comprehend at this point). The formula for beating the Rockets is pretty simple: run them off the three point line and crush them to paste inside. They might take a lot of free throws, but that’s not going to hurt you because they’re 29th in the league at it.

This issue, in fact, is one part of why the Rockets shoot more free throws than any other team. The first factor is, obviously, that they prioritize free throws. They’re high-percentage shots with no opposing defense and no time off the clock. Players like James Harden willfully leap into the teeth of the opposition defense, happy to try for that silly foul. The problem with this is that it’s dependant upon the referees’ whims and styles, which change from day to day. If the ref gets tired of sending Howard to the line every possession, Marc Gasol then gets to shove him in the back even more. That’s not cheating, it’s just the reality of the game.

The Rockets also have Dwight Howard, a player who’s a magnet for free throws. Not only does he shoot them badly, but he’s notoriously easy to frustrate with intense physicality. The whole Rockets team shares this, and other teams know it. They’re liable to foul when the Rockets offense comes barreling down, but poor free throw shooters do little stop other teams from simply hacking to save themselves.

The burden is not on these teams to stop hacking and shoving, nor is it on the NBA to change the rules or the way they enforce them. The obligation is on the Rockets to adapt to this reality of the game. If there were some sort of magic foul robot which could know exactly what was a foul and what was not, the Rockets would rejoice and prepare for a deep playoff run. Humans, however, are the best we have in this world, meaning that if other teams are going to work the refs and work the Rockets over, the Rockets have to work on their own game.

Sometimes, the only way to fight fire is with fire. There’s been progress on this front, as the Rockets seem to spend less time being frustrated by what they feel are bad calls and more time getting angry about it. Bullying is harmful and cruel in our world, but in the world of the NBA, it’s just the imposing of will through physical means. Dwight Howard, in particular, needs to continue to learn that if someone elbows you in the back, you should probably elbow back, but preferably when the ref isn’t looking.If anyone can teach that kind of resilience, retribution and rage, it’s head coach Kevin McHale. Let’s just hope the Rockets keep listening.

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