The Rockets emerged from difficult games to get the NBA restart in Orlando underway with a pair of narrow wins, in overtime against Dallas, and by 4 points over the Bucks, the team with the best record in the NBA. That has Houston within a game-and-a-half of the No. 3 seed in the conference, trailing Denver. More significantly, it has some speculating that the Rockets are a big threat in the West to the presumed Lakers-Clippers conference finals meeting.
That was the sentiment from ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith on Monday. Among other things, Smith said the win over the Bucks put “everybody on notice,” especially the Lakers and Clippers.
Here’s Smith, speaking on First Take:
You win this game because Russell Westbrook, being the stud that he is, is creating opportunities on the perimeter for other dudes. James Harden didn’t even have his greatest game and Houston still ended up winning this game. I think this is a big deal for the Houston Rockets, I think they put everybody on notice. This encounter everybody has been looking forward to all year long, between the Lakers and the Clippers … if Houston ends up running into the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston we might have a problem. In a good way. Because Houston might knock them off.
Rockets’ Win Over Bucks Especially Impressive
The Rockets were a trendy darkhorse pick before the NBA came back after its four-month coronavirus hiatus. Houston has two former MVPs in Harden and Westbrook, though it has been Westbrook carrying the bigger load, even before the league went into suspension. Westbrook scored 31 in each of the Rockets’ two games in the Orlando bubble, and has averaged 32.1 points on 52.4% shooting in his past 24 games. He’s been above 30 points in 17 of those 24 games.
What was more impressive about the Rockets’ win over Milwaukee was that all their weaknesses were well on display and they were still able to topple the league’s best. The Bucks hammered the Rockets in rebounding, 65-39, and dominated in the paint, scoring 60 points to just 20 for Houston. But the Rockets happily launched a league-record-tying 61 3-point tries, making 21, paving the way to the win.
Morey, Coaches Favor Rockets’ Restart Chances
Smith is not the first to see Houston as trouble for the inevitability of a Lakers-Clippers conference final.
General manager Daryl Morey said back in June that the Rockets, “should win this thing.”
And in interviews with Heavy.com, multiple coaches said Houston could be best positioned to pull off a surprise in the league’s restarted format.
That’s because their offense does not require much cohesion, relying more heavily than any other team on isolation plays and star production.
Harden is the NBA’s iso king. He averaged 14.5 isolation possessions per game, first in the league by a long way. No. 2 is Westbrook, who averaged 7.4 iso possessions per game. It’s a drop-off to No. 3, Portland’s Damian Lillard at 4.7 isolation possessions per game.
In fact, the Blazers are the No. 2 team in running isolation plays, and they average 11.2 per game. Harden and Westbrook alone run nearly twice as many.
“Give the ball to James and get out of the way,” one assistant coach said about the Rockets’ offense. “When you don’t have James out there, give it to Russ. There is not a whole lot to drill those guys on. Let James and Russ do their thing and hope your perimeter shooters can make 3s when they’re open. That is a huge advantage coming back into this mix.”
Another head coach agreed. “What is worrying all of us is getting some chemistry back,” the coach said. “If you’re Houston, you don’t have to worry about chemistry or feel or getting back that momentum. They have the same game plan no matter what and they’re going to hit their stride faster.”