The Rockets are quite an enigmatic bunch. One game, they can look like NBA champions by defeating the Lakers in convincing fashion and then look like a first-round exit by slumping against the lowly Knicks. The Rockets have two superstar players, and a whole bench deep of 3-point specialists who can defend and attack the basket. It is clear what the Rockets want to accomplish: spread the court as wide as possible and play micro ball.
While this can be a dangerous strategy, it won't work without Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is the key to this team, and if he is not playing, the Rockets barely look like a playoff team at times. They struggle to break down the defense, and the entire opposing team will focus all their efforts on James Harden. More specifically, Russell holds the key to the Rockets success because of four major factors.
Without Russ, the small ball style of play completely collapses. Here are the reasons why.
1. Russell Westbrook's Ability To Attack
Westbrook is an incredible scorer. He is averaging 27.5 PPG this season, which ranks in 7th in the NBA overall and third among point guards. More specifically, he does his damage completely by attacking the basket and also from his mid-range jumper. While many think of LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo as the kings of attacking the basket, Russ is in the conversation for the best rim attacker in the league. When Russ attacks, he almost always scores the ball or finds open shooters.
Without Russ, Harden is forced to attack himself. While this is also clearly beneficial for the Rockets, it's a different animal when Russ attacks. He is extremely explosive, attacks with rage, and energizes the whole squad when he scores. Russ is clearly one of the most competitive players in the game today, and his ability to beat his man and attack the basket almost every time is key to this team.
2. James Harden's Cold Tendencies
Harden is one of the greatest offensive players of all time, and all credit goes to him for making the Rockets consistent title contenders. But, Harden has now shown enough evidence that he can go very cold from the field. He shot 35% from the field for the month in January and has so far only made 37.4% from the field in March. While this is normal for most players to get into a shooting slump, Harden has the tendency to take his cold slump and shoot the Rockets out of a game. Harden also had tendencies to giving the ball up lazily, and settle for tough contested threes.
With Russ, he will always find a way to score the ball when he is cold from the perimeter. Russ has the ability to attack the basket every time down the floor, freeing up James Harden and giving him free rein to find his rhythm. It's clear Harden's Cold streaks can be detrimental to the Rockets, and Russ must be there to shoulder the load and provide a spark.
3. Predictable Offense
The Rockets are a very predictable team without Russell Westbrook. Teams will have no problem defending them, as seen with the Charlotte Hornets most recently. The game went like this: James Harden gets trapped in a tight defensive scheme that forces him to kick out to shooters who are waiting. When teams rotate properly on defense, as the Hornets did, it just leads to forced threes that play in the opposition's favor. This is the main reason why Charlotte got out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter.
Without Russell Westbrook's ability to forget the system and attack the basket with rage, Harden is forced to give his opponent a clear indication of what he will do next. Predictability can be a major downfall in the NBA Playoffs, and the Rockets are the most predictable team in the league when Westbrook doesn't play.
4. Forced To Live, And Often Die By The Three
The Rockets, without Russell Westbrook, are forced to live and die by the three. While this may work for a team like the Golden State Warriors, it is important to consider that they were a complete anomaly. Most likely, there will never be a team to have that kind of shooting ability ever again. A team with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant gives a guaranteed 40% from three, something that is scary considering each can average 20 in their sleep. The Rockets have good shooters, but no one remotely close to those three.
Without Russ, the Rockets are forced to jack up threes and pray they fall. This is because teams can trap Harden when he wants to drive, and if the defense rotates properly, the only way to get a shot up with a few seconds on the shot clock is a contested three. Out of all the Rockets players, the best shooter is Ben McLemore at 39.5% followed by P.J. Tucker at 37%. The Rockets, as a team, average 37.2% from three in wins, and only 30.2% in losses. When Russ is there to get by two and three defenders, this offense is scary. Russ holds the key to Houston's success this year.