Article written by Shaun Shaikh (@sports_shaun)

Before diving into the statistical litmus tests of the series and thinking about what has to change if the Rockets were to turn it around, I would like to soak in the moment:

Like many of you, I am hurting.

I have spent a lot of time and effort defending the Houston Rockets over the last several years against haters and critics against claims like:

  • Harden is bad in the playoffs
  • Harden is bad at defense
  • Harden is bad when it counts the most
  • D’Antoni is an offense only coach
  • Morey’s stats can’t measure heart and chemistry
  • You can’t win playing the Rockets style
  • etc.

Many of those were and are stupid arguments that don’t belong in the realm of expert analysis, yet we have been banged over the head with it for the last several years. When strong evidence has cropped up to support these criticisms (such as the embarrassing effort against the Kawhi-less Spurs), we have found new and innovative ways to write it off — Harden was too tired, Harden was concussed, Harden does not have enough help, etc.

Today, those criticisms are staring us in the face in ultra-bright light, impossible to ignore.

This team needs a change in direction — we can’t continue to inflexibly push one style with no flexibility or adjustment in the playoffs. We can’t continue to solely rely on Harden’s individual greatness to propel us offensively, ESPECIALLY in high leverage situations in the playoffs. We can’t continue to shrink to 6-man rosters every single post-season. We can’t perpetuate a system where our best player stands at half court with his hands on his knees if he’s not dribbling the ball. And so on and so forth.

There will be more time to talk about this later.

As a reminder, here are the stats we will be looking into.

  • Offensive rebounds versus turnovers battle
  • The Lakers half court volume and efficiency
  • What defense are they playing Harden and how does the team respond? (man, zone, trap, etc.)?
  • Harden’s off-court minutes
  • Anthony Davis post-ups and isolations

Offensive Rebounds versus Turnovers Battle

After decisively winning this battle in Game 1, things have gone worse in the later games (unsurprisingly).

I can’t believe we got one entire offensive rebound against the Lakers in Game 4. Another mind-blowing statistic showcasing what a lemon of a game it was.

The Lakers Half Court Volume and Efficiency

Over the course of the season and the bubble, the Lakers have not been a good half-court offensive team. They average 94.4 points per play in the half-court, which was 19th in the regular season among all teams. The key to the series was to limit the Lakers transition opportunities and force them into more halfcourt possessions.

The Rockets have only had one game where they did not do a bad job of limiting the Lakers in transition — they were merely average in Game 3. Of course, in that game the Lakers enjoyed extremely high efficiency in the half-court and transition, so it didn’t matter.

What defense are they playing Harden and how do the Rockets respond?

The Lakers are trapping Harden and forcing the ball out of his hands. It has sapped his confidence and aggression. He is no longer driving against double teams or taking step back threes. The other Rockets are not making the Lakers pay. Harden is not giving up the ball and trying to get back into the play — he merely concedes and stands lifelessly out of the play.

He has regretfully shrunk from the moment, until the game and series was no longer in the balance.

Zach Lowe broke it down the best. It is required reading for Rockets fans.

Harden’s On-Court/Off-Court Metrics

Putting aside Mike D’Antoni’s system, lack of adjustments, rotation decisions, etc. the story of the Rocket’s struggles in the playoffs has really centered around the fact that Russell Westbrook has been bad. Even try-hard zooming around Westbrook has been clueless and inefficient on offense.

I was glad the Rockets tried the lineup with no Harden and Westbrook, as I detailed in this blog post.

Only two other Rockets are delivering above average offense, and Westbrook and Rivers have been delivering worst-in-the-league efficiency at high volume. Impossible to win this way.

Anthony Davis Post-Ups and Isolations

Anthony Davis has been getting 23% to 34% usage this series and is scoring 1.3 to 1.5 points per play each game of this series. He has been turnover prone, even in the Lakers’ best games — he had 5 turnovers last game, which didn’t even include a few times he got bailed out of turnovers by friendly officiating.

A lot has been made about PJ Tucker’s individual brilliance against Anthony Davis, but Davis and the Lakers have found ways to get him high quality looks close to the basket.

Notice the trend on Davis’ shot attempts and makes — constantly moving closer to the restricted area.

In conclusion, tonight might be our last night to enjoy the Rockets play basketball for several months. As disappointed as I am with how this series has played out, I hope we get at least one more good, winning effort.

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