Dallas Mavericks 111, Houston Rockets 100: If you’re not worried, you should be.

Red94 will be releasing a post-trade deadline roundtable early tomorrow, and I observe in it that the Mavericks are the only team which I feel confident beating in the playoffs. I am not alone in my observation that Dallas appears to be a step below the other Western teams: the always knowledgeable Haralabos Voulgaris said as much in Friday’s BS Report.

So what does it say when the Rockets start the post All-Star period by getting blown out by those Mavericks for three quarters before making a cute little rally at the end? The answer is that this is a fundamentally flawed team which lacks size, passing ability, and above all, shooting. Houston has focused heavily on defense since the loss to Portland and “defense wins championships” is a nice catchphrase which coaches use in practice – but the reality is that a championship team needs both offense and defense. And I sure don’t know where the former will come from when teams gang up on Harden a la 2006 Kobe.

Let us point out one thing immediately – even at the end of the third quarter when they were down by 20, the Rockets outscored Dallas in the paint 32-30 and shot more free throws. This held up for the rest of the game, even though Houston barely made more free throws than Dallas thanks to Brewer and Smith going 2-5 and 0-4 respectively.

But the problems I mentioned above did the Rockets in. Ariza at this point needs to just copy Shane Battier on the offensive end, which means “camp the corners and do nothing else.” The Rockets dominated the paint in the fourth quarter at around the same rate as they did for the previous three quarters, but Ariza and Jason Terry’s three-pointers started to finally go in. Houston went from shooting 11% from long-range late in the third to 32% at the end of the game. But Ariza somehow can vary between hot and cold shooting from one minute to the next. While he hit some shots to bring Houston back into the game in the fourth quarter, he then took some poor three-pointers which sank any chances of finishing the rally. And because I am tired of banging on Beverley game after game, I will just note that he went 1-7 from the field, 1-5 from three-point range, and leave it at that.

On the passing front, the Rockets had more turnovers than assists, while Dallas had 26 assists to 17 turnovers. Houston’s significant passing/turnover problem is why while there has been more discussion about K.J. McDaniels since the trade deadline, I believe Prigioni is much more likely to play a valued role for Houston this season. Both Harden and Smith, the closest this team has to passers, had more turnovers than assists tonight (and Smith had 5 turnovers to 1 assist).

As for Smith: no one besides Harden and Joey Dorsey (yes, seriously) had a good game, but the ways in which Smith played badly reflects many of Houston’s problems. Smith’s basic weakness is not his three-point shooting (he went 1-3 from three-point range tonight, with the two misses taken early in the shot clock). Smith’s basic weakness is that he tries to play like a guard instead of a big man far too often. It can work here and there, but it results in bad turnovers and sloppy shots way too often. If that was not enough, Smith only grabbed 4 rebounds in 26 minutes. Al-Farouq Aminu and Tyson Chandler gave Houston fits on the offensive glass with 5 each, and Smith could do more down there if he stopped trying to do so much on the perimeter.

I’d like to close out tonight’s recap by pulling out a paragraph from the past:

“Houston leaves Ariza AND Fisher open to defend a two-man game with Odom and Kobe. Kobe throws it out to Fisher in the corner — brick. Houston gets the rebound. Dating back to Game 74 of the regular season, Fisher has missed 33 of his past 40 3-pointers. For the Lakers to win this series, Houston has made it clear that either Ariza, Fisher, Walton or Vujacic must nail 3s or Kobe is going to have to go old-school Kobe and beat everyone one-on-three. Smart. I like it”

Bill Simmons wrote these words when he was talking about Game 1 between the Rockets and the Lakers back in the 2009 playoffs (which turned out to be Yao’s final great game), but update it to 2015, switch it to the Rockets, and it is perfectly applicable. Of course, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were a far better frontcourt than even a healthy Howard, and the Western Conference was not as vicious as it is today. But those facts just make things even starker: if Ariza, Beverley, and the Rockets around Harden continue to shoot and perform on offense as they have, Harden may have to make a superstar push comparable to 2007 LeBron and 2001 Iverson. Given how unlikely that is, it is time to worry about this team.


About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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