By: Paul McGuire
McGuire: The Houston Rockets saw a lot of Hack-a-whoever in the last few weeks of the regular season, and there is no doubt Rick Carlisle will use a ton of it against the Rockets. How concerned are you about this, and are you starting to believe that the rules need to be changed to deal with it?
Rahat: It has kept me up at night, admittedly. But I don't think it warrants changing the rules. If people don't like it, they need to step up and make their free throws.
Walker: It might hurt the Rockets, and it might hurt them badly. That’s the boring part. The interesting part is what happens if Houston gets waylaid by this as badly as people are worrying. This is a metagame issue, and metagame is critically important for all games and rule sets, even in sports. Sports fans and personalities seem allergic to any discussion of metagame to the point that its very existence is denied, but this facet won’t be denied.
When changing a rule, you have to examine not just what you want to change, but what the rule currently advantages and disadvantages and weigh that against what the proposed change would do. The current rule set effectively punishes poor free throw shooting. Nobody is arguing about on-ball fouls, for whatever reason, so let’s stick with off ball fouls.
In a hypothetical new situation, free throw shooting would be a less valuable skill, as long as someone on the team can do it. How much less valuable, though? Probably not a lot. These cases are already fairly liminal. The biggest change would be that big men don’t have to spend quite as much effort and time on their free throws. I don’t see why anyone cares either way how good centers are at free throws. Maybe this lets them work more on footwork or team defense.
I’ve thought about this issue to the point that I don’t care about it any more. It’s annoying to watch and I don’t think it would affect much more, so I guess change it. It doesn’t really matter.
Dover: I’m not really concerned if they do it with Smith or Howard. Both players are at about 52% on the season so I don’t think opponents gain much by using it, to be honest - maybe 1 or 2 points in a game? Make one fewer turnover and that probably evens it out. But a lot comes down to how Carlisle employs the strategy. A lot of coaches will hack until their target starts making free-throws, but that really doesn’t work. If you’re going to hack, you have to do it Popovich style - keep hacking even if the guy on the line is making his free throws, banking on him eventually regressing to the mean.
As for whether the rules should be changed, from my point of view the answer is an unequivocal ‘Yes’. I have no problem with free-throws if they come in the flow of play, but I despise intentional off-ball fouling. It’s not ‘part of the game’ in my view because it happens before any actual basketball can be played. The league know it is a problem, or else you would be allowed to do it in the last two minutes of games. Just extend that to the whole game and the problem is solved - you can still foul people intentionally if they’re involved in the play, but you don’t have to be subjected to the unedifying spectacle of seeing players streaking into the backcourt to tag their hacking victim.
Li: Definitely concerned. It seems that coaches have also begun employing the tactic when they’re leading and whenever it’s convenient, as opposed to only when they’re trailing and late in games. Statistically, that makes a lot more sense and doesn’t bode well for the Rockets. Since Harden is pretty much 95% of the offense, not allowing him to play basketball effectively neuters the team.
That being said, no way should the rules be changed. Shooting free throws is a part of the game. Ironically, the Rockets exploit shooting free throws more than any other team. It would be pretty disingenuous for this team to complain about how free throws ruin the flow of basketball and make it less entertaining.
On one last note, why don’t the Rockets hack? They know first hand how useful it can be. Rajon Rondo is shooting 45% on his free throws this year. Sending him to the line seems like a much better proposition than allowing Dirk and company to execute their offense.
Felker: I think hacking is the only chance the Mavericks have. It could make a fun, fast-paced and high scoring series into a long, boring and wildly frustrating one. Muck up the game, and it reduces Harden’s role. Getting the ball out of his hands is priority one for Dallas.
And yes, for the love of everything that is holy, change the damn rule. I’m sure we get more exposure to it, rooting for the Rockets, but I can’t believe such an intelligent and progressive league would allow such an un-aesthetically pleasing wart on its game. It was necessary to slow down prime-Shaq, but allowing it against the likes of Dwight Howard and Josh Smith just seems short-sighted.
Dover: The Rockets have suffered injuries to two major cogs in their rotation. What adjustments, if any, do you think the coaching staff will make to overcome the loss of Beverley and Motiejunas come playoff time?
Rahat: I don’t think anything changes from what we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks, except that you will likely see Dwight Howard eat a bit more into Joey Dorsey’s minutes. The loss of Motiejunas hurts emotionally, because I had sold myself on the thought of that big man quartet gobbling up other frontcourts...but even then, there weren’t going to really be minutes for all four of the guys. What you do lose, though, is a nice second option to anchor the second unit with self-created shots when Harden sits. But that’s in theory. Even though Motiejunas in the post statistically is a better option than Howard, we probably wouldn’t have seen the team do it. So maybe in reality, we lose nothing. I don’t know.
As for Beverley, this might seem insensitive, but I’m not sure the team really lost anything. He wasn’t stopping anyone and he certainly wasn’t adding much offensively. At least now, you get some outside shooting with Prigioni and Terry. Maybe the only real loss, as I joked a few weeks ago, is that if you assume that Beverley starts at least one scuffle per game, and in reaction, the referees “call the game tighter”, then you lost out on a few Harden free throws...
Walker: McHale et. al. have been paddling down this river for a while and I don’t expect to see major changes. Howard, Jones and Smith will account for the meat and potatoes of the big man rotation, and it looks more like Clint Capela may get burn over Joey Dorsey. Those guys will both get torched in the playoffs, but that’s not their fault. They do the best they can, and McHale just has to work around it.
I’m less terrified of the Motiejunas injury because of this rotation, actually. There’s room for about three and a half guys in the big man rotation, and someone was going to be getting low minutes either way. The four and the five need 96 minutes a game, and 32 minutes for each of three guys isn’t unreasonable, especially not in the playoffs. Having the versatility and offensive punch would have been great, but the Rockets still have three guys who can cover 32 minutes each. The Rockets are lessened but not hobbled.
Beverley’s loss is a little more complicated. What did Patrick do, precisely? Well he played aggressive defense. Very aggressive defense. Occasionally too aggressive. It’s good to have someone out there to scare opposing guards, but he also had been so up and down that it’s hard to tell how big the loss is. Despite winning the Skills Contest (yes, that actually happened, remember?), Beverley isn’t a gifted passer or a very good playmaker. His shooting has been back and forth, but lately was pretty poor. Jason Terry, somehow, can more or less pick up the slack for him on the offense. Nick Johnson, while very green, shows a lot of defensive promise. Pablo Prigioni is now a very wise insurance policy and can cover the 15-20 minutes a night the Rockets are missing. I expect a lot of point guard by committee, but let’s be honest. James Harden is the real point guard.
Li: The rotation will be tightened up during the playoffs, as is common practice around the league. The primary eight will be Harden, Ariza, Howard, Jones, Terry, Smith, Brewer, and Prigioni. I don’t expect Capela or Dorsey to play many meaningful minutes except in times of extreme foul trouble. In short, I don’t think McHale et al will do very much to specifically ameliorate not having Beverley and DMo.
What I would like to see is Nick Johnson (now that McDaniels is out) assume an athletic defensive role. He can guard someone like Monta Ellis so Harden can save energy by being in the general vicinity of the offensively challenged Rondo. The more the Rockets stick with business as usual, I think the more difficult this series becomes, because you know Carlisle is going to cook up something different.
Felker: What I think they’ll do and what I hope they do are two totally different answers.
First, I love that they gave Capella all the backup center minutes against Utah. I mentioned benching Dorsey in favor of Capela in our forum to little fanfare, but I like what he does with James Harden. One can only watch so many rebounds get tipped away from a flailing Joey Dorsey.
As for the guard rotation, I don’t see McHale changing much. He’s surrounding James Harden with Jason Terry’s shooting, and allowing Pablo, J-Smoove, and Corey Brewer to fly up and down the court as a unit. You just have to hope a healthy Dwight can negate not having Bev.
What I’d like to see, though, is more Corey Brewer. His scoring is crucial to the second unit when Harden sits, but I’d play him starters minutes and go without a point guard down the stretch. This would also allow the Rockets to switch everything and stay out on Dallas' shooters. Also, it's much easier to escape 38 year-olds on the pick-and-roll than it is Brewer's 6’8’’ gaggle of arms and legs.
McGuire: I believe Matt Moore pointed out on Twitter Wednesday night that Dallas got Rondo to help counter the plethora of terrific point guards in the Western Conference...but Dallas got stuck facing the one Western team that does not have one. When you look at it that way as well as the fact that Rondo is not going to beat the Rockets, the loss of Beverley won’t hurt Houston that much in this series. The second round against San Antonio or the Clippers is a different story, but for now, McHale just needs to throw Terry-Prigioni out there.
Motiejunas is a bigger problem. Yes, in theory Dwight-Smith-Jones can play 32 minutes apiece, and that is probably what Kevin McHale will do. But what happens when one of them gets in foul trouble, or just has an off night? Dorsey’s free throw shooting is just too big a liability, and Capela is raw and will get pushed around by Tyson Chandler.
But on the other hand, you don’t need to go big to guard Dirk Nowitzki. So the best thing to do is to play Dwight-Smith-Jones for those 32 minutes and then use smallball to mix things up or as an emergency here and there.
Walker: Dallas is the first round opponent for Houston, and the Mavs will battle the Rockets in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Predictions aside, what do you think a Rockets win in that series would look like? What do you think a Rockets loss would look like?
Rahat: A win will see a carryover of the regular season with James Harden willing his team to the easy victory. A loss for the Rockets will see Dallas utilizing unconventional methods to overcome the talent disparity, whether that be schemes or wacky lineups. Carlisle over McHale might be the biggest advantage either team has over the other in this series. Will the Rockets be up to the task to adjust to Carlisle’s adjustments?
Dover: One thing’s for sure - Carlisle is a master at constructing defensive schemes to make up for his lack of personnel, and he’s sure to throw in some surprises. How well the Rockets do will depend a lot on adapting to the different looks the Mavericks give them on that end. But there are a few things that a successful Rockets team will have to achieve:
- Dallas will use their zone to avoid having to put Nowitzki in too many pick-and-roll situations. The Rockets need to neutralise the zone with three point shooting and ball movement.
- Tyson Chandler is the lynchpin of their defensive scheme. Finding a way to limit his contributions will be key, whether that’s drawing him away from the hoop on pick-and-rolls or using Howard post-ups and Harden drives to get him in foul trouble.
- There’s no doubt the defensive scheme will be tilted towards Harden, especially in late-game situations. Being able to keep the scoreboard ticking when the ball is forced out of Harden’s hands is a must.
If the Rockets win, they will need to do at least a couple of these things well. If they do badly, it’s because they failed to adapt to Dallas’ defense. Either way, I firmly believe that it is at this end of the floor that the series will be won and lost.
Li: Dallas has the look of a house of cards. It’s a team that’s standing, but there are a lot of shaky pieces. Rondo certainly tops the list, though even Dirk and Chandler have wrestled with questions about how age might have caught up with them in different ways. And have you seen the Mavericks bench? Richard friggin Jefferson averages 17 mpg for them. I think their sixth man at this point is the player posing as Amare Stoudemire (or is that Amare Stoudemire posing as a player?). Devin Harris and JJ Barea combine for about 40 mpg and nine feet of height.
I think the Dallas starters can draw even with the Houston starters, due mainly to superior execution and game planning. A Houston win means the Dallas bench crumbles like… a house of cards. Amare is going to slug it out with Josh Smith? Corey Brewer could guard Barea (I say Brewer because I expect Harden to be on the court for ~42 MPG) with one arm, because he’s still longer than Barea with only one arm.
Dallas wins if the series becomes one of attrition. They are better equipped to make small adjustments, hide weaknesses, and round out smooth edges. Basically, they’re better coached. If Houston starts off slowly and doesn’t blitz Dallas out of the playoffs, Dallas will have time to make those changes and exploit advantages that they identify. Houston, on the other hand, will just do the same thing over and over again.
McGuire: I am a strong believer in the critical importance of big men even in the modern NBA( though not in the post-up big). Dallas can throw all the clever defensive schemes it wants at James Harden, but Harden is going to outplay Monta Ellis. I am not remotely terrified of Rondo and even Houston’s depleted bench is better than a Dallas team that gives Charlie Villaneuva rotation minutes. But Dirk and Tyson Chandler are a different story.
If Dallas wins this series? It is because Terrence Jones cannot stop Dirk just like he could not stop Aldridge last year. If Jones/Smith can keep Dirk from going off and Howard can keep Chandler away from the lob, the Mavericks have no chance. But a series where Dallas wins is one where Dirk looks like he used to once upon a time.
Felker: I don't see any way the Mavs can hang with Houston. They have no one to guard Harden, and their bench won't be able to score without over-extending their starters. Chandler Parsons has a tough draw with Ariza, and we have two ideal bodies to throw at Dirk in Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. LaMarcus Aldridge was a different story; I just don't think Dirk has the legs to escape Jones anymore.
If they are able to hang with the Rockets, it will be a whole lot of Monta Ellis. If he can make Harden work on both ends, it changes things. Tyson Chandler has made things difficult for Houston in the past, and his kind of height and reach is about the only thing that gives Dwight Howard problems.
But I think Dallas's best chance at an upset comes from the man with the clipboard. Rick Carlisle gets my vote as second to Gregg Popovich in the NBA's coaching hierarchy. I still have such fond memories of 2011, when he navigated a brutal Western Conference, then gave Erik Spoelstra a coaching clinic as the Mavs ran circles around LeBron and company.
I agree with Paul that his schemes won't be enough, but if that long-shot does land, it will have Carlisle's fingerprints all over it.
Felker: Two gunners having to guard each other. The Traitor and the Redeemer. Grit versus Goofy. Former teammates-turned-coaches trying to outwit each other. This series has so many story lines and interesting subplots, what matchup intrigues you the most?
Rahat: James Harden redemption. Is he locked in as he was all regular season? Will Dallas be able to exploit the Beard this series, like Portland was able to last year? Also, Dirk. It’s interesting to think that the last time these two franchises squared off in the postseason, Houston had a superstar 25-year-old shooting guard, and the Mavs had Dirk. And now things are the same. Just a brilliant career.
Walker: I have my eye on “playoff Rondo.” He’s likely to be put on Harden for stretches while the Mavs hide the other guard on whatever “point guard” Houston’s running. I want to see what Rondo and Harden can do to each other, and I want to see the second gear Rondo has unleashed in past. If he can do that again, this series might be a lot more stressful for Houston than anticipated.
Both Rondo and Harden are masters of finishing at the rim, skilled passers, and aggressive playmakers. Both are tenacious ballhawks and love to jump in passing lanes, though Rondo’s a better team defender overall. This is going to be a key matchup, and might be the most important one in the series. If Dallas can cool off Harden at all, they stand a real chance. If Houston can keep Rondo from touching the ball every play, Dallas’ offense will suffer.
Dover: For me it’s the battle of the bench dynamos - Corey Brewer vs Al-Farouq Aminu. In the regular season, these guys were frequently the sparks that ignited the team if the starters were a bit sluggish. I’ll be interested to see which can have more of an impact over the course of the series.
With Motiejunas out, Brewer is probably my favourite Rocket to watch - I think we sometimes take for granted just how brilliant he is in the open court. There are ferocious dunks, there are sublime finger-roll and euro-steps where you least expect them. Somehow the ball always seems to drop through the hoop and my jaw frequently drops to the floor. The Mavs are a poor team in defensive transition (2nd worst in the league in opposition fast break points per 100 possessions) so he should have plenty of opportunities to feast.
Al-Farouq Aminu has played well against the Rockets this year, with stat-lines like 17 points 12 rebounds (February 20th), or 10 points, 7 rebounds 6 blocks (January 28th). He seems to be especially good at timing his weak-side shot-blocks against the Rockets’ drives for some reason. I have a feeling Aminu is going to be a key cog in Carlisle’s rotations as Dallas attempts to conjure up an underdog victory.
Li: I agree with Forrest. Rondo has the most intrigue in this series. He was brought in as a difference maker but, thus far, has only made a difference in the wrong direction. If his toughness, defense, and experience are supposed to nudge the Mavericks in a positive direction, now is the time for that to happen.
An honorable mention would be Dirk against the combination of Jones and Smith. Dirk’s minutes were drastically reduced this season to compensate for his age. He struggled early but his efficiency numbers for this year ended up on par with his career averages. He’s going to receive more playing time in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if he can still maintain that efficiency for longer stretches.
McGuire: Harden in the playoffs. People have said that Harden’s free throw-heavy style won’t work. Furthermore, there is the standard “If he is good, why can’t he get it done in the playoffs” line that is beginning to follow him, especially after last year’s disappointment.
I think such a question is nonsense, but Harden hasn’t played great in his last three playoff series. Can he break this trend against a Dallas team which does not have a great perimeter defender?
Rahat: What would be considered a successful playoff run for this team?
McGuire: Under the current circumstances, Western Conference Finals. The Warriors are scary. The Warriors are really scary. They have the highest SRS in a season since the 1997 Bulls. If Houston defeats the Mavericks, fights past the Spurs and Clippers, and then gets curb stomped by Golden State in 4 or 5 games, I’m fine.
Houston’s bracket is about as good as one could reasonably hope for. Consequently, our expectations of what they can accomplish this season should be higher.
Li: First round exit would be a huge disappointment. Second round exit would be neutral. Western Conference Finals would be successful.
Dover: We thought before the season that the Rockets could be title contenders. Being a title contender means that you have to be capable of beating the best teams in the league. Well if the Rockets want to win the title they are going to have to go through the best teams in the league - San Antonio and Golden State stand in their path to the Finals. It’s a successful season if the Rockets can show that they deserve to be talked about at the same level as those teams. That means they need to beat at least one of them, so my baseline for calling the season a success would be getting to the Conference Finals.
Given the mitigating circumstances though, (injuries at the worst possible time, a season beset by lineup changes), I would be satisfied with the season if they get past the first round. That would be meeting the expectations the rest of the league has for the team, even if not quite what the fans might have hoped.
Walker: Asking for anything more than a Western Conference finals is getting greedy, especially with how many excellent teams are in the west. Asking for anything less, however, feels like defeatism. With the bracket as it is, the Rockets should make it out of the first round, and if they make it into the third, they feel great.
Li: I think last week's consensus was that the Spurs or Clippers are the worst matchup. Now that one of them will be the opponent next round (knock on wood), who do you think is the marginally more favorable matchup?
Rahat: The Clippers because the Spurs are never the answer.
McGuire: The Clippers, though I disagreed with that consensus on the worst matchups. The Clippers don’t have a bench and they don’t have a perimeter defender of Kawhi Leonard’s level. And in some bizarre basketball version of Mutual Assured Destruction, I don’t expect the Clippers to hack us since we could do the same thing to DeAndre Jordan.
Dover: It’s pretty close. Without D-Mo the Rockets will really struggle to defend the combination of Jordan and Griffin, and putting Terry and Prigioni against Paul is asking for trouble. But the Spurs have demolished the Rockets on their own court and run them close in Houston. They have Kawhi to lock down Harden, an unstoppable offense and a genius on the sideline ready to morph them into whatever shape will best exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. So on balance I’ve got to say I’d prefer to play the Clippers.
Walker: The best case scenario for the Rockets right now is that the Clippers beat the Spurs in a grueling first round matchup and have to play their starters huge minutes to do so. If Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are suffering due to playing 45 minutes a night, the Rockets can really take advantage.
A deep, healthy Spurs team is scarier. The Rockets match up well with the Spurs, but that’s like saying a shotgun works better than a sword against an angry bear. You’re probably still dead either way. The Rockets should be able to hang with whoever comes out, but I think they’d rather see a vulnerable Clippers.
Final question: List your prediction
McGuire: Rockets in 6.
Rahat: Rockets in 6.
Walker: My gut says Houston in 6 but I’m ready to be horribly wrong. Nothing in this series would surprise me.
Li: Rockets in 6.
Dover: Rockets in 5.