In just a few hours, Houston Rockets will take Dallas Mavericks in their season restart opener in Disney World, Orlando. With the NBA season is all set to resume, fans are not sure what exactly to expect in these strangest of times. A few months ago, no one in their wildest imagination would have thought the NBA playoffs would be played out inside a bubble in Orlando with no fans to witness it!
As we get accustomed to the new normal, the focus is slowly shifting towards basketball again and the debates are restarting as to who could win the NBA title in 2020. As of now, all eyes are on the two L.A teams and the Milwaukee Bucks. But there is one interesting storyline that's not being talked enough about: The Houston Rockets and their small-ball lineup.
The small-ball evolution
Before Russel Westbrook joined James Harden in Houston in 2019, The Rockets were already known for their fast-paced, offense-oriented style of play. But earlier this year, the Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni doubled down on his small-ball approach and traded their starting center Clint Capela for Robert Covington, a smaller forward known for his shooting abilities. This meant that 6 ft 5 P.J.Tucker would now play the center position for the Rockets!
While this might seem like too big of a gamble by the Houston Rockets, this is not the first time Mike D'Antoni is experimenting with this strategy. He has been one of the biggest proponents of this style of play and implemented it in Steve Nash's Phoenix Suns as early as 2004! The effectiveness of this style was proved to the world when the Warrior's 'Hampton Five' won the title with Draymond Green occasionally playing as the center.
The Houston Rockets took it up a notch this season and have played most of their matches without a traditional Center. They went 22-17 with Capela in the starting lineup and 17-4 without him! Even though there have been challenges defensively, the micro-ball Rockets have already shown great promise.
By giving up on size, Houston Rockets have given even more space in the paint for the Beard and Brodie to attack the rim whenever they want. What's more, Daryl Morey has made sure the Rockets' dynamic duo is surrounded by great shooters and '3 and D' players. So if the Houston Rockets work on some of their defensive shortcomings (especially defensive rebounds), they'll be hard to stop come playoffs time!
James Harden's Playoff Demons
While it is no secret that the key reason for Houston Rockets' success in the regular season is James Harden, the reason for their recent playoff struggles has also been, ironically, James Harden. Though his scoring hasn't declined much as compared to the regular season, he has repeatedly come off short in important matches. In games 6 and 7 of last year's Western Conference Finals, Harden shot an abysmal 22-of-53 from the field (6-25 from beyond the arc) against the Warriors.
While there can be multiple factors for the Beards playoffs failures, there's no denying that fatigue has played a major role in it. James Harden has been the regular-season scoring champion for the last three years (including 2019-20). Having spent too much of his energy in the regular season, he's often accused of having left with too little in the tank towards the end of the season.
So what's different about Houston Rockets this year?
Well, for starters, the 2018-MVP just got a four-month break in the middle of the season! While the NBA hiatus has caused a plethora of problems to players, it has immensely helped them recover and rest before the business end of the season. And given his track record, James Harden might just be the biggest winner due to this mid-season break!
Add to this, the absence of the Golden State Warriors. Though there are other great teams in the conference, the Warriors have been the Houston Rockets' Achilles heel. Steph Curry and co knocked them out of the playoffs in four of the last five seasons! With no splash brothers to stop them now, the Rockets sure are psychologically more confident this time as compared to previous seasons.
After dominating the majority of the regular-season, a full fresh James Harden is now set to continue his scoring streak in the playoffs. Playing alongside another MVP and a team that is tailor-made to suit Harden's game, the Houston Rockets sure have the ammunition to knock out any team in the league on a given day. But as with all small-ball teams, they are heavily reliant on their perimeter shooting.
If James Harden and Russ can play like their MVP selves and the rest of the team has decent shooting nights, the H-town might soon have their first championship in 25 years!
Published 31 Jul 2020, 20:18 IST