At one point during the run-up to the NBA bubble, I made a bold prediction that the Houston Rockets could win the western conference title this year.
Sure the prediction was a reach, but some of the things that held the Rockets back in the past were no longer issues in the bubble. Stuff like Harden being heckled by fans and the Rockets for the first time entering the playoffs would be rested.
The only question that remained was could the Rockets small ball strategy really work against the taller, tougher, and more talented Lakers and Clippers?
Before the playoffs I came up with 5 legit reasons the Rockets could win the Western conference:
1. Harden is a ball hog – for starters, Harden is one of the best ball hogs of all-time. His ability to score at will from basically anyplace on the court makes him a legit threat in any playoff season. Look Harden can create shots from just about any place on the court, plus he will be fresh from not playing for the past 4 months. One of the knocks on Harden has always been he runs out of steam during the playoffs, that should not be an issue this year.
2. No fans in the stands – Harden’s past playoff failures have occurred in arenas all across America that were filled with Harden haters. Unlike many other NBA superstars who thrive in hostile environments, Harden has struggled during the playoffs in opposing arenas. The fact that these games will all be played on essentially natural courts should provide Harden a pathway to success that he wouldn’t normally have.
3. Batman + Batman – I’m willing to bet that during the upcoming playoffs Russell Westbrook will not play like Robin and will give the Rockets a second Batman on the court. Just think about how easy it is for Westbrook and Harden to score when they are both equally sharing the ball. From a pure scoring standpoint, they are by far the best dynamic duo in the NBA today. Plus, I can’t wait for the report that stats Westbrook showed up in the bubble with over 100 garment bags. I figure he will be the best-dressed ping-pong player in the bubble.
4. Uncharted waters – as the NBA restart draws near, I’m sure there will be many key role players who opt-out of the bubble. As teams scramble to replace these often undervalued contributors, the teams that can simply score at will should have an advantage that they would not normally have in a traditional playoff year. Playoff basketball normally delivers more defense and rebounding than an average regular-season game, but in the bubble that could change dramatically because defense team chemistry might be difficult to reestablish because of new players being forced into uncharted waters.
5. Hungry for a chip – sure everyone is hungry to win an NBA title, but when you look at Harden and Westbrook’s past playoff experiences its easy to see that they both have extra motivation to get it done this year. The reality is both Batman’s are going to be fresh entering the playoffs for the first time in their careers and I’m sure they will look at the bubble as their best opportunity in years to bring home a championship.
Here’s Why The Rockets Failed
Currently, the Rockets are down 1-3 and the Lakers should wrap things up in game 5 on Saturday. Now there are two main issues that will force the Rockets to head out on a fishing expedition on Saturday night.
The first issue is rebounding. During game one of the series, the Rockets matched the Lakers with 41 rebounds and won the game by 15. Since game one, the Lakers dominated the boards to the point that even if the Rockets drained 40% of their 3-pointers it wasn’t enough. Take game 4, the Rockets made 42% of their 3-pointers but lost the game by 10 points because the Lakers dominated the boards with 26 more rebounds. As good as the Rockets shot, getting outrebounded by 26 was just too large of a gap for the Rockets to overcome.
The second issue is Russell Westbrook who is certainly capable of scoring 30 points a game but has been only averaging 19 throughout the playoffs. In order for the Rocket’s small ball strategy to work Westbrook and Harden, both needed to average close to 30 points a game. My guess is Westbrook is still not 100%, but that’s something that he will never admit.
As entertaining as the Rockets are, they are going to fail primarily because of rebounding which will officially end the small ball experiment and most likely result in a coaching change next week.