Rockets

Rockets’ Chance for a Title Boosted by Time Off

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NBA fans around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Woj tweeted out news of the impending return of basketball.

With 22 teams set to play, the Rockets will enter Orlando as the 6th seed in a tight Western Conference. The Rockets are 9.5 games back of first but are within four games of the second-seeded LA Clippers. Surrounding them, just four games separate the 3-7 seeds. Even though only eight regular-season games remain, there will likely be a lot of changes in the standings.

It remains unknown how teams react to NBA basketball after 4+ months off, but the lengthy rest might be just what stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook need to lead the Rockets to a championship.

Small Ball

At the trade deadline, Daryl Morey made the bold decision to trade starting center Clint Capela. Without a center in the rotation, the Rockets embraced small ball, starting the 6’5″ PJ Tucker at “center.” Switching everything on defense and spreading the court on offense, this new team clicked right away. They earned crucial wins over the Lakers and Celtics, mainly due to Tucker’s defense and the newly-acquired Robert Covington. Most importantly, small ball unlocked Westbrook on offense. With Capela originally clogging the lane, Westbrook, a non-shooter, didn’t have enough space. Now he can slash and drive to the rim far more effectively.

Take a look at how easily he burns Rudy Gobert off the dribble:

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After the hot start, however, things quickly fell apart. The Rockets lost four straight and showed signs of lifelessness on both sides of the court. With no real big man, the Rockets had to give double the effort defensively and on the boards. That’s a hard way to play night in and night out, and it ultimately seemed to take a toll.

With the NBA starting back up in July, though, the Rockets will have ample time to rest. This rest will be beneficial for two reasons. One, it will allow them time to get in better game shape. And two, it will give Coach D’Antoni a chance to review tape and come up with a more sustainable plan. D’Antoni is known to keep his rotations short and squeeze out every minute he can, but he is also an offensive guru. There’s no telling what he’ll have figured out by the time games start, but the Rockets will certainly be a lot more prepared than they were back when Morey first made the trade.

Slim James

Twitter was set ablaze when this photo of James Harden made the rounds recently:

We don’t really know what the deal is here, but there’s no denying that he’s trimmed down. This new look might completely change the way he plays.

As a Rocket, James Harden has always slowed the game down. He can get to the rim at will but is at his best when he first lulls the defense to sleep. He’s a deceptively big guy, so he’s never really been the fastest player on the court. After losing some pounds, though, perhaps we might see a quicker, more athletic version of Harden offensively.

On defense, Harden has faced criticism for his passiveness. While this weakness has improved over the years, he is still a below-average perimeter defender. A lot of that is a lack of energy. Coaches ask him to carry so much of the burden offensively that his defense often wanes.

If he is indeed in better shape now, though, Harden’s stamina will increase. This improvement will ultimately give him the needed energy boost to consistently match up against the league’s best on the perimeter.

Eric Gordon

Like Harden, Eric Gordon seems to have also lost some weight since the season stoppage.

Gordon is one of the most critical players on the Rockets. His hot shooting can propel the team to victory, but a cold night could lead directly to defeat. The Rockets desperately need him to be energized and in the zone from the jump.

This season, though, has been disappointing. He’s shooting a measly 31.9% from three, which is far below any other year during his Rockets tenure. Defensively, he’s often looked disengaged and passive.

We’ve tweeted this once, but probably could’ve sent it out for at least 20 other games this season:

In his defense, though, Gordon has been battling injuries throughout the year. Lingering knee problems hindered his ability to stay on the court consistently. The time off should allow him to make a full recovery. This recuperation, coupled with the weight loss, is a promising sign that the old Eric Gordon will be the one we get in Orlando this July.

Scheduling

To close out the regular season, the Rockets will face off against six playoff teams and Damian Lillard (and the Kings). It’s a relatively demanding schedule, but most teams will be in a similar predicament. With eight games to go before the playoffs (and homecourt advantage virtually off the table), the first goal for the Rockets will be to avoid a first-round matchup with the Clippers. Instead, the Rockets will aim for a series against the Mavs, Thunder, Jazz, or Nuggets. These teams all pose a lesser threat and will give the Rockets a better opportunity to advance through later rounds.

All teams will start games on July 31 after not playing professional level basketball for over four months. Some squads will look better than they did when play stopped, and some will look worse. No one knows how it will play out. But the small-ball Rockets, who were running on fumes back in March, may have the best chance to sprint their way to a championship in October.

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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