Rockets

3 Keys for the Rockets’ Bubble Games

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With play set to resume in two weeks, the Houston Rockets will have eight regular season games to get into playoff shape. At 6th in the Western Conference, the Rockets will likely need to move up in the standings in order to make a deep playoff run. Other than leapfrogging the Jazz and Thunder, though, what else must the Rockets accomplish in their remaining schedule?

Below, I’ll analyze the steps that Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets need to take in order to ensure lasting playoff success.

1. Spread Out Minutes

Coach Mike D’Antoni has often been known to run his players into the ground with heavy minutes. This season, it’s been no different. Currently, the Rockets have three players in the league’s top 20 in minutes played. Heading to the bubble in Orlando, though, D’Antoni has claimed he is willing to take it down a notch:

 

This is important for two reasons. First, it will help avoid burnout. In the past, James Harden and others have often been out of energy by the playoffs. Second, it will give the coaching staff a greater chance to assess the roster. There is really no telling how the team will look when play resumes. All players will have a small training camp before the season, but there’s no guarantee that everyone will be in game shape. Perhaps someone comes out sluggish in the first few games. This might be an indication that he won’t be playable in the playoffs. Alternatively, what if someone like DeMarre Carroll comes back in the best shape of his life? By spreading out minutes early on, D’Antoni can determine which role players are most and least ready for playoff minutes.

We’ll see if D’Antoni sticks to his word. If he does, it’d be a productive first step in preparing the team for the playoffs.

2. Experiment With Rotations

This goes in turn with spreading out minutes, but it deserves its own category. Everyone knows the Rockets as the team with the 6’5″ center, but they have only played about 15 games with that precedent in place. While things have – for the most part – looked good, there’s no reason to suggest that they’ve unlocked the full potential of the small-ball system yet.

Luc Mbah a Moute was part of the 2018 team, and was a huge boost on the defensive end. He was injured in the playoffs, but proved that he was an elite, versatile defender. Since then, LMAM hasn’t really played NBA ball. Nagging injuries have kept him off the court, and it’s unclear if he’ll still be the same player he was back in 2018. With eight regular season games to go, though, the Rockets can certainly find out. Even if D’Antoni isn’t fully confident, experimenting with him in a lineup with Robert Covington and PJ Tucker is such a low-risk and high-reward play. We’ll see what happens, but the combined defensive abilities of these three players could make it impossible for other teams to score.

Additionally, the team should look at a number of different lineups to see what works best. Is Danuel House still the best fit at starting small forward? Or should D’Antoni finally relinquish Eric Gordon’s sixth-man role and move him into the starting lineup? As for the bench unit, is Bruno Caboclo ready for minutes as a backup center? Or has Jeff Green done enough to cement his spot?

These are all questions that the Rockets have plenty of time to answer. With eight games before the playoffs, the team will have an opportunity to really see what works best. And, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t.

3. Get Harden and Westbrook Comfortable

James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the two most important players on the Rockets. If they’re not on their A game, the Rockets will have no chance in the playoffs. Fortunately, both of them have been working out a lot over quarantine, so they should be in great shape for Orlando.

However, it’ll take more than that. When I say comfortable, I don’t just mean getting accustomed to game speed. More importantly, Harden and Westbrook need to feel good about where their games are at together.

In the beginning of the season, the two struggled to consistently make it work. One night Harden was on. The next, Harden was bad and Westbrook took over. Very rarely did both fire on all cylinders at the same time. As the season progressed, though, the two have been able to coexist more easily. Before a four-game losing streak (due mainly to fatigue) soured things, Harden and Westbrook were both playing great together. With the introduction of small-ball, there was more space for the two to operate effectively.

As the team heads to Orlando, D’Antoni will need to quickly get his stars into the flow of the game. If the team can get off to a quick start, Harden and Westbrook’s confidence will be sky-high. And if they can both head to the playoffs playing well, the league better watch out.

Follow us on Twitter @RocketsLead for the latest Rockets news and insight.

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About Zach Zola

Zach Zola is a student at Brown University studying English. He grew up in New York, but has been a die-hard Rockets fan since the days of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He believes that James Harden is the only King James in the NBA.

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