The Houston Rockets are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA to watch, thanks to their up-tempo style of play led by James Harden, Mike D’Antoni, and Russell Westbrook. Harden especially has managed to put on a scoring streak that has lasted since he came to the Rockets many years ago. The Rockets simply have a ton of firepower, and this is a reason why they have been title contenders since D’Antoni took the job.
Still, many in the media have doubts over the ability of the Houston Rockets to finally break through and win the chip once and for all. After coming close a few times in the past, many argue they were only second-best to the Golden State Warriors juggernaut led by Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
Here is the reason why only two teams, the Clippers, and Lakers, are standing in the way of the Rocket’s title hopes.
The Rockets have switched to small-ball, and seem to be having their way with teams such as the Utah Jazz. Bigger players simply do not have the ability to defend the perimeter, and the Rockets are forcing teams to play their tempo. If you don’t, you just get burned for easy twos and threes all game long.
As a result, the Rockets can match up with anybody. Even while playing small, they have tough guys like P.J. Tucker who can handle the beating and still be an effective small-ball player on the other end.
The Rocket’s ability to guard multiple positions and create matchup problems will blow most teams away. Especially on the fast break, the Rockets have too much speed (led by Russell Westbrook) and they can score the ball almost every time they go out on the break. Nobody wants to play Houston in the playoffs.
The Rockets have a luxury only a few teams have: two superstar players on the same roster. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are simply unguardable, and they have the ability to average 30 points apiece for every game in the playoffs. They are also very adept at moving the ball and finding open shots, and surrounding them with long-range snipers is the best way to maximize their style of play. Star talent usually wins games, and the Rockets have two guys who can do it for them.
Still, only the Lakers and Clippers have two superstar players that compare or exceed their ability. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are two of the five best players in the league and can outduel the Rockets in that aspect.
The Clippers have an excellent Paul George and quite possibly the best player in the world in Kawhi Leonard. Their duo can match and even exceed the Rockets duo production, especially on the defensive end. As a result, the two LA teams have the best shot at taking them down.
The Rockets depth is scary good this year, with a solid 10 guys who can provide minutes every night. With the addition of DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green, the Rockets got even touched to beat. They add size to play small-ball, and the ability to hit the three. Not to mention, playoff experience and can provide veteran leadership.
Beyond the two additions, the Rockets have an array of three-point shooters including Ben McLemore, Eric Gordon, Danuel House Jr, and even P.J. Tucker.
Perhaps most importantly, they have a legitimate third scoring option in Eric Gordon who put up a whopping 50 points against the Jazz before the All-Star break.
When he is healthy, Gordon adds another 20-PPG scorer who can attack the basket or hit deep three-pointers. Even Austin Rivers can provide hustle, defense, and three points shooting to give Russell Westbrook a breather in the playoffs.
Only the Lakers, who have their own array of defenders and three-point shooters, and Clippers with the likes of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell can provide similar depth.
4. More Three-Point Shooting Than Ever Before
The Rockets will live and die by the three, and they have managed to ramp it up even more. They have dedicated themselves to be completely small-ball, basically putting five guys on the floor who can shoot at one time.
When you have James Harden and Russell Westbrook controlling the ball as often as they do, this makes the Rockets extremely dangerous. Russ and James can attack and finish at the rim whenever they want, so a second defender will need to step up and protect the rim. As a result, guys will be getting open threes all night.
If the ball goes in, it’s usually game over and the Rockets win. Hanging on the basis of analytics, the Rockets believe they have enough guys who can make enough threes to get them to a title. Even if they miss, and miss a lot, hitting enough threes will give them the best chance to one-up the opposition every game.
Once again, almost every team will not be able to handle the barrage of shooting every night, except the Lakers and Clippers. The Lakers have the ability to slow the game down with Anthony Davis, and LeBron James is a master at controlling the tempo. The Clippers also have defensive juggernauts who can slow down the Rockets superstar duo, and the scoring ability to match the production offensively with Lou Williams, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard.
Most teams will not be able to defend the Rockets well enough, thanks to the mismatches they create and the ability of their two superstars as stated above. But the Lakers and Clippers have the ability to not only stay with the Rockets when they switch defenders, but also keep close tabs on both Harden and Westbrook. The Rockets will be tough to defend, but the two LA teams will be able to manage thanks to their excellent defensive personnel.
The Lakers can throw multiple bodies at Russell Westbrook, including the likes of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. These guys are crafty defensive players who have experience playing lockdown defense, and even Alex Caruso can come in and give solid minutes as he’s a very good defender.
LeBron James, specifically, has the legs and capability to defend both Harden and Westbrook at times during the playoffs. James will be key in getting stops and will have plenty of help with Danny Green and KCP as well.
For the Clippers, they have both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two superstar defensive players who can bother Russ and Harden. George knows Russ from their time in OKC, so he will be able to bother him as much as possible with his speed and strength.
Kawhi is a beast on defense and has plenty of experience guarding the best players in the world. Putting Kawhi on Harden is possibly the best way to slow the Rockets offense down as much as possible.