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Breaking down Houston’s collapse

Dry salt lies fresh in Houston’s open wound, and what I’d like to do right now— place the NBA’s postseason on its rightful pedestal—could sting a bit. The playoffs are an accomplishment and should be treated as such. This is about advancing to a second season, solidifying yourself among the league’s top half, and guaranteeing a chance at winning a championship. Opening yourself up to a different level of good will, competition, and public exposure, both on an individual level as players, and as a franchise, in my opinion, outweighs everything.

For just a second, try to ignore the connection between merit and losing that exists in today’s NBA. Ignore any good that comes by virtue of tanking. Ignore draft picks, renovation, and hope. What I want to do is forget about the future, and analyze what just happened. Before their loss in New Orleans on Thursday night, I said on Twitter all week that I believed the Rockets were mortal locks to make the postseason. The idea was unpopular, but after watching almost every game this team played all year, it seemed more than likely. These guys weren’t a typical annual feel good story line; pawns straggling along in some hopeless underdog narrative. Yes, they faced tons of adversity, and defied almost every conceivable odd in doing so, but regardless this team was good. They played hard, they played together, and they played with more talent than they’ll probably ever be recognized for. 

It got me thinking about the type of things 29 fan bases collectively ponder at the end of every season. Questions like, “Why did my team have to lose?” Except in Houston’s case, what I’m interested in learning is how they managed to collapse the way they did. On an all encompassing, cerebral level, it’s a question that has no one answer and no indisputable truth. For example, the Rockets were terrible in the third quarter in almost all of those games, yet not even Kevin McHale could explain with 100% certainty why this was.

What follows can best be described as my difficult attempt at scratching the surface in explaining what the hell happened to this basketball team. We’ll start the analysis on April 2; 10 games ago. The Rockets had just come back to defeat a tough, uber-territorial Bulls squad  and were on the cusp of a sudden four game win streak that would memorably be aided three nights later by Andrew Bynum’s unmellowed attitude towards their bench.

At the time they were 29-25, and feeling good about where things were headed. Then on April 11, their playoffs before the playoffs began. Over the next week the Rockets played five games against four teams that were all fighting for three playoff spots. The situation was dense, but far from uncomfortable. Houston had been playing well despite seeing various key members of their team drop like flies throughout the season, and it appeared they were well adjusted to the personnel they had. Here are some of the most noticeable extremes that happened in those last 10 games.

1) They didn’t get to the free-throw line. With no consistent presence on the interior apart from Luis Scola (who in my opinion remains underrated), the Rockets were never confused with an elite team that gets to the free-throw line. Speedy Goran Dragic has the ability to draw contact better than almost every player in the league, but he’s human, and the toll his relatively small frame took dancing in the lane simply wasn’t sustainable. The Rockets lived and died on jump shots and threes.

They ranked 27th over the last 10 games in free-throw rate, meaning their free-throws attempted relative to their field goals attempted was flat out awful. In games like this, where possession after possession becomes more and more important, the free-throw line is THE place to live. Throughout the season this was a problem for the team (they’re currently ranked right after Dallas at 28th) and as I mentioned earlier, personnel is clearly an issue…but come on. The fact of the matter is that these games were physical battles, and if it took guys expanding upon their own comfort levels to get wins, then that’s what needed to be done. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

2) They didn’t turn the ball over: This makes explaining their losses quite difficult. The Rockets were the second best team in the entire league over the course of these last 10 games when it came to hanging onto the ball, a crucial component in deciding who wins and who loses. It was something they were below average at during the year (they now rank 17th, and that takes into account those last 10 games of super careful play), so for them to lose six straight while improving on an underlying weakness just adds insult to injury.

Of course, holding onto the ball is great, but the name of the game is putting it through the hoop, and the Rockets posted a true shooting percentage of 51.9% which placed them just above the Wizards and Nets for 22nd in the league. Also, despite their great security, they somehow managed to give up 15.3 fast break points per game; a stat that suggests some things just aren’t meant to be.

3) Their defense was awful: The offense averaged 1.03 PPP, putting them ahead of Miami, and just behind Oklahoma City and Boston in terms of efficiency, but the defense was another story. With teams who were capable of going with small lineups to keep Dalembert on the bench (i.e. Denver) the defense suffered mightily. In the 10 games they ranked 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions and were a general mess, especially in the paint, where they surrendered 45.1 points, the third highest in the league.

4) They played at their pace: The Rockets are generally one of the faster teams in the league. They have youth, speed, and no ball-dominating isolation players; restricting the first two characteristics wouldn’t make any sense. They run, they gun. Over their last 10 games, the only thing that changed was they got a little faster. This might attribute to their inability to get to the free-throw line a bit, but overall it should be seen as a positive that they didn’t deviate from their style during the season’s most important stretch of action.

So what does this all say about the team’s collapse? They either picked a really bad time to revert to who they really are, or a bad time to play below what they showed throughout the season to be their potential. Either way, bad timing is bad timing. Say what you want about draft picks, and how now we don’t have to give our first rounder to Brooklyn, but a gigantic opportunity was missed here. Making the playoffs and winning a couple games (who knows, maybe even a series, and then anything can happen) is a positive experience that lasts inside each and every player—most of these guys are young, and getting them to play together in games of upgraded significance is an unquantifiable step in the right direction.

Everyone will have their own explanation for why this Rockets team didn’t qualify for an honest to goodness up-for-grabs tournament to the championship (I didn’t even mention Marcus Camby’s health which was undeniably significant) but one thing  is for sure: in an undivided culture filled with people who’d rather look forward to a hopeful tomorrow than enjoy a fruitful today, this one really hurts.


Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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It is Friday, and these are notes: April 20th, 2012