The Rockets Are Having an Identity Crisis at the Worst Possible Time

The Rockets Are Having an Identity Crisis at the Worst Possible Time article feature image

Pictured: Rockets guard Gerald Green. Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Highlights

  • The conversation after the Rockets’ Game 1 loss is that their iso-heavy style can’t work vs. the Warriors.
  • But don’t forget: Their approach got them 65 wins and a spot in the conference finals.
  • The bigger issue is that conversation has already infiltrated the locker room. 

HOUSTON — Do the Rockets have to change their style?

If a strategy fails, the immediate response is to suggest that the strategy is the problem. The Rockets don’t move the ball. They isolate with Chris Paul and James Harden, and if you help over, they lob to Clint Capela or kick to shooters, depending on where the help comes from.

It has worked all season. It was a feature, not a bug, for Houston’s offense. The Rockets had the best isolation mark per possession of any team in a dataset that goes back to 2005. To the best of our knowledge, they are the best isolation team, ever.

In Game 1, the Rockets ran 33 possessions that resulted in shots from isolations, or passes out of isolation. They scored 45 points, for a 1.364 points per possession mark, shooting 61% on such shots. That’s crazy efficient for that volume.

Yet the conversation is all about how the Rockets’ approach can’t work. The best case was made by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, a Bay Area writer for the Athletic SF:

If the Warriors are to win this series, dribbling’s downsides will be a huge factor as to why. Because otherwise, the Rockets, sharp as any team at finding market inefficiencies, are well built to win this. In theory, Houston could throw a wrench in the Warriors’ gears, thanks to Harden and Paul repeatedly isolating. It slows the pace, it cuts down on turnovers (think running the football vs. throwing it), and these guys are among the very best at it. This is why, when Kevon Looney kept switching on Harden and getting burnt, it initially appeared to be to Houston’s massive benefit.

But it all ended like Ali rope-a-doping Foreman, but if Ali was allowed to substitute an early-rounds crash test dummy to absorb Foreman’s body blows. On the other side, Harden was attacked ruthlessly, and submitted what might have been the worst defensive performance by a superstar in a playoff game.

The argument is that Houston’s approach is too taxing on its star players, leaving them vulnerable on the defensive end. The third quarter is where things unraveled for Houston, immediately. Harden gives up a layup to Andre Iguodala when he misreads the cut.


Next scoring possession for the Warriors, Harden confuses P.J. Tucker who motions “who’s got who?” and Kevin Durant gets an open 3.


So is this exhaustion?

Let me posit something else: it was just bad defense. Look at the clock on these possessions. They were all after half, when Harden was coming off rest.

Part of this is not just “bad defense.” It’s “bad defense vs. the Warriors.” I made this observation after the game: the Rockets’ margin for error is effectively zero. Harden can’t have stretches such as these. Instead of talking about exhaustion or how taxing their style is, maybe the Rockets just need to play better; Harden needs to play better.

Harden played 35 minutes. His minute-load was not excessive. If Harden is having problems keeping up with this workload, even with it being high? That says more about Harden than it does about the Rockets’ offensive approach. But because they lost, the conversation is whether they should just suddenly change their approach after winning 65 games and playing in the conference finals vs. a team that destroys mistakes.

The problem is that the conversation is becoming internal.

Here’s Eric Gordon from the Undefeated:

“I definitely would like to get the ball more for me to be aggressive and get good looks,” said Gordon, who took 13 shots. “Offensively with everybody, we really don’t get real good looks. … We can’t isolate as much against a good defensive team. I don’t care who you are. We have some of the best isolation players out there. But against a team like that, it’s going to be too tough.”

And here’s Clint Capela to USA Today:

“We’re just out here waiting on (Harden and Chris Paul) to make the decisions,” Capela said. “This is what they do. This is what they’ve been doing all season long, so it’s something that is harder to do right now. Maybe we’re going to have to be more aware on the weak side, maybe (use) flares to get guys open, to get more movement, so all the focus won’t be on the guys on the weak side.”

Coach Mike D’Antoni is not having it. He referenced how the conversations outside the team had gotten in, saying even the players were referencing it, but he stuck with the idea that the game plan is sound.

“Perception is not reality,” D’Antoni said Tuesday. “(Isolation is) what we do best. ‘Oh, they don’t pass, everyone stands there.’ Really? Did you watch us for 82 games? That’s what we do! We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it. Just embrace it, and be better at who we are.”

Then there’s Harden’s take, which …

“I can’t do it by myself.”

This is a pretty bad sign. The players are indicating that the game plan that got them here, that got them to the Western Conference Finals, and had them with homecourt up until that buzzer sounded Monday, is compromised. The role players want the ball more, Harden says he can’t do it by himself, but he’s the one getting the shot clock deep, and that’s a key problem here.

Houston wound up late in the clock and that created shot-clock violations. And when the Rockets did get opportunities for players like Gordon, Golden State seized on it. The Warriors aren’t as worried about Gordon as a playmaker, so here they collapse on him, and Klay Thompson interrupts the pass.


The Rockets had defensive breakdowns, and Golden State was red hot on those shots. The Warriors had defensive breakdowns, and it hurt them only sometimes. But the question of whether the Rockets’ style should change or not might be moot. You can’t suddenly start whippin’ the ball around and invent all sorts of cute off-ball cuts and screens in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

This is a pretty common conflict. When you win, the players love the style. But lose, and the players start thinking you should be able to adapt and change. Except that’s difficult for a team with such a strong identity, and one that should limit the turnovers that kill you vs. Golden State’s transition defense. Kevin Durant said after the game that the Rockets had only 13 turnovers, but they had 16 as a team, which led to 17 points. If the Warriors are getting that many points off turnovers, it’s more important than the number of giveaways.

The Rockets were always trying something extreme. The Warriors tear up teams that play “normal,” so Houston was built to stress the limits of what is possible in efficiency for an inherently inefficient style. Isolation basketball is always going to be less efficient … unless you have Paul and Harden running the show. And in Game 1, it was efficient. The Rockets lost in the margins, they lost in the little mistakes, they suffered the little deaths. But in the wake of a loss, everything gets re-examined.

The players are already grumbling, home court is lost and the Warriors looked good … but can play better.

It is not exaggeration to say this is already getting away from Houston.

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