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Houston Rockets

Why the Houston Rockets Are Pretenders and Not Contenders This Postseason

Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Mike D'Antoni
Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-20 NBA season is scheduled to resume in late July, and basketball fans across the land are starting to get excited.

So are a handful of teams that feel like they have a real shot at the NBA championship.

Under normal circumstances, perhaps only three or four teams would have a legitimate chance of winning it all. But given the unique circumstances of this season’s relaunch, there are likely additional teams that honestly believe they can come away with the NBA title.

One of those teams is the Houston Rockets. Last summer, they pulled off a blockbuster trade, sending an aging Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for superstar Russell Westbrook.

Then, at midseason, Houston made a controversial trade by jettisoning center Clint Capela and two other players for 3-and-D forward Robert Covington.

Both deals meant that Houston had gone all-in on Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni’s grand vision of small-ball, pace-and-space NBA basketball.

On one hand, the Rockets have Westbrook and James Harden, two of the game’s greatest players. However, Houston has some significant flaws that will likely spell its doom sometime in September.

Unreliable 3-Ball

The Rockets are known for general manager Daryl Morey’s analytics-heavy approach to basketball. That, combined with D’Antoni’s preference for a freewheeling offense, makes the team tops in the league in 3-point attempts per game.

However, the Rockets aren’t a good 3-point shooting team. They’re only 23rd in 3-point shooting accuracy at 34.8 percent this season, which is problematic, especially when about half the shots they attempt are from downtown.

Unlike the Golden State Warriors during their five-year dynastic run, the Rockets are prone to cold shooting spells. Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals against those Warriors, when Houston shot just 1-of-21 from 3-point range in the second half, is an infamous example.

When the Rockets go cold from downtown, those misses turn into long rebounds, which, in this day and age, usually turn into fast breaks for the other team. That leaves the Rockets vulnerable to being on the wrong side of a huge run, like they were on that June evening in 2018.

No D, No Boards, No Rings

The Rockets, like many contenders and pretenders these days, are a fast-break team. But you can’t run if you don’t have the ball.

Houston is a mediocre 15th in defensive rating, 14th in total rebounds and 28th in rebounds allowed. It’s much harder to run and get good, early shots when you have to take the ball out of the net.

The Rockets are one of a handful of teams that can score at least 130 points on any given night. Unfortunately, they can also give up at least 130 points on any given night, and that’s not a championship formula.

Are Westbrook and Harden to Be Trusted in Money Time?

The Rockets’ starting backcourt is made of two of the game’s most prolific players. However, neither has a good track record of getting things done under extreme pressure in the playoffs.

Harden has a history of coming up small in elimination games. In the aforementioned Game 7 in 2018, he shot just 12-of-29. A year earlier, he missed nine of his 11 shot attempts in a 39-point drubbing against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Harden also shot 2-of-11 when Houston was knocked out of the 2015 NBA Playoffs in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals by the Warriors.

Westbrook also has his own checkered history in similar situations. Who can forget his Thunder blowing a double-digit lead in Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs last year against the Portland Trail Blazers?

The University of California, Los Angeles product shot just 11-of-31 in that game. Throughout the series, he was outplayed by Damian Lillard, who ended the series in Game 5 with a long, buzzer-beating 3-pointer and wave goodbye.

A year earlier, in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs against the Utah Jazz, Westbrook hoisted 43 shots and made just 18 as his team was eliminated from the postseason.

When the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead against the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, Westbrook shot under 40 percent in each of the last three games.

Make no mistake, the Rockets will be must-see TV once the season resumes. But if one is expecting them to win the NBA championship, that fan should expect to be disappointed.

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