The Houston Rockets completed a dramatic series comeback on Sunday afternoon at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. The 113-100 win in Game 7 marked the third straight win for Houston after they had looked nothing short of horrible in the first half of the second-round series.
ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon called them “dogs” on Pardon The Interruption and he was absolutely right. But the Rockets weren’t dogs in Games 5 thru 7.
This series will be remembered for what happened in Game 6. The Clippers had an 87-68 lead late in the third quarter on their home floor and not only blew it, they got completely blown out. The Rockets won the fourth quarter by a stunning 40-15 and won the game by double digits. In the end all three of Houston’s closing wins came by 12-plus points.
The statistic that stands out the most in boxscore reviews of the final three games is the 60-41 dominance Houston exhibited in Game 6. Dwight Howard was an absolute beast, with 21 boards on his own. Rebounding and getting to the free throw line often go in tandem.
The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s big mover and shaker each of the last two offseasons, getting James Harden prior to the 2013 season, and then adding Dwight Howard for this year. The results are showing up on the floor. Houston brings a 36-17 record into the All-Star break, good enough for #3 in the Western Conference.
Now the gap from 3-5 in the West is separated by percentage points, so the Rockets could slip quickly, but on the flip side they are only two games back of the San Antonio Spurs for #2. Here’s a look at how they’re winning and where they need to get better.
Houston plays at a fast pace, and still ranks 5th in the league in offensive efficiency, which does not give fast-paced teams credit for artificially high point totals. Efficiency is what you get when the offense can generate easy baskets and with Howard averaging 19 points/13 rebounds per game, easy baskets are what Houston can get.
Harden has continued his emergence as one of the league’s top scorers since leaving the long shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Harden knocks down 24 ppg from the two-guard spot and Chandler Parsons kicks in 17 a night from his small forward role.
What the Rockets don’t do well is shoot the three-ball. They rank 20th in three-point percentage, and what’s more, their selection in this regard leaves something to be desired. Harden only hits 32 percent from behind the arc, which does not justify shooting an average of six treys a night. Point guards Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin get in the act, combining for eight attempts a night from long range, and at 35 percent or below.
The only player who can shoot the three with efficiency is Parsons, who hits 40 percent. The rest of the team needs to rein it in, or they need to acquire a three-point specialist. On top of this, the free throw shooting is atrocious, with 69 percent being the second-worst in the NBA. Clanging your threes and frees is a good way to lose playoff games.
For now though, life is good in Houston. The Rockets are a great rebounding team, as you would expect with Howard. They also get underrated help from power forward Terrance Jones (12 points/7 rebounds) and if Beverley and Lin can resist the urge to jack up threes, they make a good tandem running the offense.
There are still issues to work on, and even winning one playoff series is going to be a battle in the brutal Western Conference. But the progress in Houston continues to roll on.
The Houston Rockets are the #8 seed in the Western Conference as the NBA heads into the All-Star break this weekend. We don’t know if the Rockets can hold off any of Portland, Dallas or the Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff berth. We assume the Rockets can’t beat either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in a first-round playoff series. But we do know this—they’ve buried Las Vegas. With 27 games still to play in the regular season, Houston has already beaten its Over/Under number on the preseason NBA win props.
Las Vegas posted Houston’s number at 28. Now one big caveat comes with this—if you bet on them, this was the number just prior to the acquisition of James Harden on the eve of the regular season. So you had to believe the Rockets were going to beat the expectations of the betting markets with Kevin Martin at the two-guard spot rather than Harden. But was that so unthinkable? Keep in mind, all you would have been doing is wagering that Houston could go 29-53 (a season that probably gets head coach Kevin McHale fired anyway). Harden is an excellent player, certainly an upgrade, but it’s not like Martin is a stiff who can’t play. Houston deserves full kudos for the manner in which they have buried Las Vegas projections and if you bet on them in advance, you can already go cash your ticket.
It’s something to celebrate for Houston, who is already the focal point of the NBA world this weekend, as it hosts the All-Star Game on Sunday night (8 PM ET, TNT) and the other activities of this festive three-day holiday, including the Slam Dunk Contest. Here at TheSportsNotebook, the All-Star break is a good time to check in with the rest of the league and see how they’re faring against their own Over/Under numbers on the NBA win props.
I like the NBA win props because it gives both credit and blame to teams that are off the championship-contender radar. It’s easy to notice a disappointment like the Lakers. But the win props shine a light on teams who maybe had the talent and expectations of a 6-seed and then went completely off the radar. Or on the positive side, made the same journey in reverse. It’s easy for teams like this to get ignored, but if the ultimate goal of sports is playing to the maximum of one’s potential, the win props are the best measuring stick to begin with.
Having said that, I’m not attempting to imply that we can rigidly measure everyone as a success or disappointment based exclusively on their win prop performance. This number doesn’t factor in injuries, and as we’ll see, popular teams have a very difficult time beating their number because their bet up to a substantial degree. And as anyone who has taken a course in Gambling 101 knows, all Las Vegas numbers are ultimately geared to public perception rather than reality.
But while it’s not perfect, it’s a starting point and baseline measurement of who’s doing the most with the least, and who’s doing the least with the most. With that in mind, here’s the rest of the landscape for the preseason NBA win props as we sit here at the All-Star break. The number in parentheses is based on a projected season-ending win total and how it correlates to the preseason number.
THE BIG DISAPPOINTMENTS: LA Lakers (-20) & Philadelphia (-15) Los Angeles is the reverse of Houston. The Lakers were projected at 58-24, and with 29 losses, if you bought an Over ticket, just tear it up. I won’t go into detail, since ESPN’s talk shows have morphed into an all-Laker, all-the-time display. Philadelphia illustrates the weakness of the win prop as an exclusive measuring stick. Their market expectation was to go 47-35, but that was predicated on a healthy Andrew Bynum–admittedly somewhat of a risky assumption, even at the time. The center is supposed to be back after the break, but if he’s going to bail out Over bettors, he needs to carry the Sixers to a 25-6 record down the stretch just to get a push. In reality, the 76ers are joining the Phillies and Eagles as massive disappointments, though at least the NBA team has an excuse.
SOLID WINNERS:Golden State (+10.5), San Antonio (+8.5), LA Clippers (+7.5), New York (+6.5), Portland (+5) Golden State’s status as one of the league’s big surprise teams clearly shines through here. The underrating of San Antonio, a team we looked at more closely yesterday here at TheSportsNotebook really comes out. And the Clippers, even with their recent struggles, are still comfortably on a pace to get the 50-win season it would take to cash an Over. Portland is the team we need to give some credit to—as of today, they would not make the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference, and with some of their defensive issues, I wonder if they can hold on, but the Trail Blazers are playing solidly above market expectations, which said they would go 33-49.
DISCOURAGING LOSERS:Minnesota (-7.5), Phoenix (-7), Boston (-6.5), Cleveland (-6.5), Dallas (-5.5). Dallas is the one team with an excuse since Dirk Nowitzki missed nearly two months. It’s not unthinkable they could have the 19-11 run it would take to push them Over after the All-Star break. You can see how badly Boston underperformed, where even winning eight of the last nine hasn’t been enough to get them in shouting distance. The Celtics need to win 51 games to go Over and at 28-24, if you bought an Over ticket and lost it, I wouldn’t fret too much. The other three tams—the T-Wolves, Suns and Cavs illustrate the reason I like this measuring stick. All three are significant disappointments that would get away with it, if not for some win props reality.
AHEAD OF THE GAME: Milwaukee (+4.5), Atlanta (+4), Memphis (+4), New Orleans (+3), Utah (+2), Brooklyn (+2). There’s still enough time left for any of these teams to realistically go Under, but the team that jumps out at me the most isn’t Milwaukee, though the Bucks have done a nice job exceeding expectations. It’s Brooklyn—the Nets had big expectations, with an improvement to 46-36 being the number to bet on, then had to deal with a coaching change. They’re on pace to go Over and with seemingly the worst behind them, my guess is they beat their number substantially by the end of the year.
BEHIND THE GAME: Washington (-4.5), Miami (-2.5), Sacramento (-2) This is why you don’t take Overs on popular favorites. Miami has won seven in a row, LeBron James is playing out of his mind and the Heat are still off the mark. Why? With a win prop number of 61.5, you need a 62-20 season just to eke out an Over. With a veteran team that has to pace itself for the playoffs, what possible incentive does Miami have to push that hard? Look at it this way—even if you think they can win 62, would you really think it would go much higher? On the flip side, would it shock you if the Heat went, say 56-26? There’s just much more room for error on the Under side of these situations. This is a case where I don’t hold the team accountable as much as the market—sportsbooks know they can raise that Miami win prop number as high as they want, and people will still bet on LeBron.
WITHIN THE MARGIN OF ERROR: In political terms, these are like the races where polls show it within a couple percentage points. In our situation, some of the teams within a half-game can have that explained away by the rounding off I do with their current win pace. Either way, too close to call. Toronto (-1.5), Denver (-1.5), Indiana (-0.5), Oklahoma City (-0.5), Orlando (-0.5), Chicago (Even), Detroit (Even), Charlotte (+0.5). Indiana is the most notable team for whom the win props can’t do justice. They’ve missed Danny Granger for the entire season. Unlike the 76ers, where there was at least a general acknowledgement that Bynum’s health was a factor, the Pacers got hit with the Granger injury out of nowhere. That they’re keeping up with a 50.5 win prop number without their best player speaks huge volumes to the character of this team.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S FULL DISCLOSURE
I made predictions on all these Over/Unders just prior to the regular season, with the exception of the Celtics. They’re my favorite team and I don’t like my rooting interests tainted by handicapping opinions. You can read the preseason comments and picks for both the Eastern & Westernconferences.
So far the numbers are looking good. On teams outside the margin of error I’m 14-6 so far, with correct picks on the most notable teams of Houston, LA Lakers, Philadelphia and Golden State. My big disappointments have going Under with the Spurs and Over with the Suns.
Within the margin of error is a little dicier, where I’m projected to go 1-5-2 if the season ended today, the only winner being the Under on the Thunder (Under on the Thunder has kind of a nice ring, doesn’t it?). So cautious analysts are saying that while I’m having a winning year, not to get too carried away just yet.
One of the quiet surprises in the NBA this season has been Houston. Kevin McHale took over the coaching position with a rebuilding project on his hands in a tough Western Conference. Yet, after a win over Portland last night, the Rockets would not only be in the playoffs if the season ended today, they’d be the #4 seed and hold homecourt advantage in the first-round. Now don’t read too much into that, because there’s a sharp drop-off from the West’s top three of Oklahoma City, Denver & LA Clippers and the 4 thru 11 teams are packed within two games of each other. Nonetheless, McHale has made Houston a team to keep an eye, so today TheSportsNotebook will look at them at a little closer.
If you want a reason to be skeptical of the Rockets’ playoff chances, you can start on the defensive end of the floor, where they’re a little below average in defensive efficiency (basically points scored adjusted for tempo), and they’re mediocre in rebounding. Houston has done it with an offense that ranks 6th in the NBA in efficiency and it is tough to survive a long haul relying exclusively on your offense.
The team’s best player is point guard Kyle Lowry. His 6’0” frame hasn’t stopped him from getting six rebounds a game and that’s in addition to solid conventional point guard stats with 15 points & 8 assists a night. The top two scorers for Lowry to target would be two-guard Kevin Martin and power forward Luis Scola. Martin scores 19 ppg, although at 6’7” you would like to see him crash the boards a little more and he’s not a great three-point shooter. Scola is good for 15 a night, but here’s another player that McHale needs more rebounding out of. Six a game won’t cut it at power forward if you want to make the postseason in the deeper of the two conferences.
Chase Budinger at small forward is an X-factor. His nightly average of 9 ppg won’t dazzle you, but he’s the best shooter on this team, hitting 46 percent from the floor and the only one who’s on the positive side of 40 percent from three-point range. In big games, I’d like to see Budinger step up with some big threes and create some more room for Lowry, Martin and Scola.
Center is a weak point, where 6’11” Samuel Dalembert averages an 8/8, something that’s more acceptable for a backup inside player than a starting center. Overall, McHale’s worked at getting more players extra time and tried to make up for in quantity what he lacks in quality. Rookie Chandler Parsons at small forward and second-year man Patrick Patterson at power forward are old SEC rivals (Florida & Kentucky respectively) and now vying for increased time. Courtney Lee is a decent backup to Martin, hitting 47 percent from the floor and Goran Dragic is capable of spelling Lowry at the point.
In a season that’s abnormally compressed, as the NBA tries to jam 66 games into a shortened schedule, Houston’s depth is serving at well, and I have to believe is a big reason they’re enjoying success. They’ve got quality wins over Denver and San Antonio, in addition to Portland last night, and also won up at surprising Minnesota. But the weaknesses of the team can come out at inconvenient times, and they’ve dropped winnable home games to Milwaukee and to the same Minnesota team they beat on the road.
The immediate road ahead is…well, on the road. Houston goes to Phoenix tonight and then on to Golden State and Memphis. That takes them through Valentine’s Day and then they get to settle in for a nine-game stretch where eight will be at home. This will be a good time for the fans of Houston to come on out. The homestand includes good games against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Denver and the LA Clippers and getting teams like this in a spot where Houston should be the more rested, focused team, will give us a great case study for how much more we can expect of the Rockets.
March 6 then marks a homecoming game for the head coach, as McHale returns to Boston (I know games in Minnesota are even more of a homecoming for him, having been GM of the Timberwolves, but Boston was a gig where he was actually successful).
I like McHale—actually he’s one of my favorite ex-players. Not only was he a Celtic on a team I failed to appreciate properly in the mid-1980s, but he made a cameo appearance on Cheers, which always counts for bonus points in my book. But can he get this team the rest of the way to the postseason?
Normally I’d say no. The Rockets are basically built around Lowry, Martin and Scola and while they’re all nice individual players, especially Lowry, I don’t think of them as a “Big Three.” But in this unique season, depth counts for even more and I give them a 50/50 shot of sneaking and stealing the 8-seed. But unlike last year’s #8 team in the West, the Memphis Grizzlies, who upset San Antonio and then gave Oklahoma City all they could handle, this Houston team isn’t a threat to advance further. But they’ve got to shot to make it and they’re on the right path. That’s as much as anyone could have expected when the season began on Christmas Day.