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Film Session: Into The Fire

April 21, 2013 3:00 am EDT

Examining the Rockets' keys to survival against an elite Oklahoma City squad

OKLAHOMA CITY - Baptism by fire. That, in essence, is what the Rockets will experience during their first round playoff matchup with the reigning Western Conference champions. Nearly every wannabe contender has had to face something similar somewhere along the steep learning curve to title contention and, for these young Rockets, this represents their initial turn in the postseason flames.

Oklahoma City is a juggernaut; a stacked squad possessing the NBA’s second-best offense, third ranked defense and No. 1 overall point differential. The Thunder’s home court advantage is among the best in the league. Their talent is top shelf, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka serving as the headliners. They can beat teams to a pulp with their starting five or unleash holy terror upon the opposition by sliding Durant over to the four-spot alongside Ibaka or Collison. They are, in many ways, the team Houston aspires to be and to topple as the cream of the Western Conference crop.

So yes, the Rockets will have their hands full heading into this showdown. That’s not a newsflash. There is a difference, however, between that which is extraordinarily difficult and that which is impossible. Houston had a run-in with the former on February 20 when it faced a 14-point fourth quarter deficit against this selfsame foe. The Rockets rallied that evening, taking advantage of some sublime performances from James Harden and Jeremy Lin (among others) to accomplish what seemed exceedingly unlikely at the time, if not unthinkable. They will need much more of the same – and they will need it at least four times – if they are to shock the world on a far greater scale over the coming weeks.

What went into that comeback and what must the Rockets replicate in order to give themselves the best possible chance to pull off the upset? Let’s dive into the film from that February game to find out.

EARLY OFFENSE

Pushing the pace and creating quality scoring opportunities before opposing defenses have had a chance to get set has been an essential element of Houston’s offensive strategy all season long and it figures to prove just as pivotal to the team’s success against Oklahoma City. Walking the ball up and giving the Thunder plenty of time to lock-in defensively is akin to putting the shackles on yourself and surrendering. OKC’s half court defense is ranked third overall according to Synergy Sports, so it’s incumbent upon the Rockets to attack the Thunder early in the shot clock whenever the opportunity arises. That’s precisely what Houston did when it found itself on the ropes back in February and that attacking, aggressive mentality got them back in the game in a hurry.

Pushing the pace shouldn’t be a problem for either team in this series since both clubs prefer to play up-tempo and each can most definitely be turnover prone. It is that last point which recently prompted Jeremy Lin to offer the reminder that while he wants his team to play fast in this series, he wants to do so wisely rather than recklessly.

“Similar to like when we play a Denver or a Golden State, there’s a fine line,” Lin said while discussing the difference between playing with pace and playing out of control. “In the Denver game we were going up and down, turnovers, bad shots, playing reckless at times. That’s where it can almost become a weakness, so we have to make sure we understand when to push and how to push and we don’t just take the easy bait every time.”

MAKE OKC DEFEND BOTH SIDES OF THE FLOOR

Like pretty much every elite NBA defense these days, the Thunder will flood the strong side of the floor in an effort to snuff out its opponent’s first option on offense. The only way to consistently make them pay is to swing the ball swiftly and smartly from strong to weak and force them to move, rotate and shift in order to hopefully open up a vulnerability or two along the way. Make them defend just one option and you’ll likely be doomed more often than not. Get them scurrying from side to side and inside and out, however, and quality scoring opportunities can be had.

The above possession exemplifies what Houston must do. Harden makes his move, swings it crosscourt to Lin and from there it’s two quick passes and a strong drive that presents the Rockets’ point guard with two quality options: 1.) A lob to Greg Smith at the rim or 2.) A direct window to find a wide-open Chandler Parsons behind the three-point line. Lin chose door No. 2 and even though Parsons’ triple came up short, that’s the kind of possession and subsequent quality look Houston will happily take every single time.

“To beat this team, we’re going to have to move the ball,” says Houston head coach Kevin McHale. “I know one thing: (the Thunder) will load up to the strong side and they will try to take certain things away which means we’ve got to move the ball to the weak side. There are times we’ve done that very well but I’ve said it year along: we’ve ebbed and flowed with our ability to move the ball.

“There are times when our read-and-react offense gets bogged down. In a read-and-react offense you’re reading the guy in front of you. If that guy holds it or stops and doesn’t cut, then everybody gets put on hold. If they’re cutting and moving, it just flows.

“I think for this team it’s worked very well at times. But if we get bogged down we’re going to have to get into some other stuff that ensures that we have ball movement.”

LATE GAME OFFENSE

Much was understandably made of the Rockets’ iso-heavy offense that led to their demise down the stretch of Wednesday’s loss to the Lakers. The ball got molasses-level sticky as Houston played itself into a quagmire of one-on-one possessions that featured little in the way of pace, creativity or movement.

Coincidentally enough, however, some stylistically similar possessions yielded much more positive results down the stretch against Oklahoma City (this, by the way, is why process often matters much more than results). Check out these two late-game buckets courtesy of the individual brilliance of James Harden.

Those two hoops brought the house down and played a huge role in Houston’s comeback victory. But man cannot live on isos alone. Shots like that are as remarkable as they are unreliable. Yes, Harden is one of the best, most efficient isolation scorers in the game today, but an overreliance on one-on-one basketball plays right into the defense’s hands. Much more desirable and likely to deliver sustainable success is the following sequence that twice sees Harden force a second defender to commit, at which time he finds the open man who then quickly delivers a pass to Lin for a pair of backbreaking three-point daggers.

Before we continue, a word on Houston’s crunch time offense: There’s been a great deal of handwringing of late over the Rockets’ ability to generate quality looks in tight, late-game situations. For what it’s worth, here’s what the numbers have to say:

Houston’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) for the season was 106.7. It’s offensive rating in the last five minutes of games when either ahead or behind by five points or fewer: 107.8. It’s record in such games: 23-21. Houston’s offensive rating in the last three minutes when ahead or trailing by five points or fewer: 106.2 with a record of 19-20. Lastly, the Rockets’ offensive rating in the final minute of games when ahead or trailing by five points or fewer: 102.2 with a record of 15-17.

Is there room for improvement there? In the final minute at least, the answer is certainly yes (prior to that point in the game, however, the team’s offense seems to hum along rather nicely). But A.) Such sample sizes are inherently small, B.) This team has only been together a year and increased familiarity and collective experience in those last-minute situations should certainly help, and C.) The Rockets basically owned a .500 record in games that history suggests essentially amount to a coin flip. Doesn’t really seem like something worth freaking out about at this juncture.

AVOIDING EFFIE

Now this on the other hand might be cause for legitimate concern. Yes, the Rockets are staying at OKC’s haunted hotel. No, there have not been any sightings of its phantasmagoric hostess. Not yet anyway. Fingers crossed …

TOUGH TEAM DEFENSE

Back to the real issues at hand – problems, unfortunately, that are far more real and fearsome than the dearly departed Effie: Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. These guys are going to get their points – there’s no defense in the world that can make them appear mortal for a full seven games. The key is to at least make them work for their points. With Durant, that process starts by forcing him away from his sweet spots and making him catch the ball as far away from the basket as possible. And with Westbrook, it requires solid defense at the point of attack and ample help in and around the paint when he inevitably breaks contain and gets into the lane.

Asik’s terrific swat of Westbrook in the first clip speaks for itself. Notable in the second clip is J-Lin staying in front of Westbrook (with some help from Delfino at the ‘nail’ (the term coaches use for the center of the free throw line)) after a Durant screen, followed by Parsons doing an exceptional job of ensuring KD catches the ball 22-feet away from the hoop with his back to the basket. With his height, length, quick feet and smarts, Parsons has displayed an ability early in his career to make Durant earn each and every one of his points. This possession finds him playing Durant perfectly, forcing him right and into a very difficult pull-up jumper (Durant shoots a lower percentage and gets fouled less often on pull-up Js when driving right, rather than left, in isolation situations, per Synergy) that caroms harmlessly off the rim. Fun fact: Durant has faced the Rockets five times over the past two seasons when Chandler Parsons has been in Houston's starting lineup. In those five games KD is shooting 42 percent (42-100) from the field and has yet to hit the 50 percent plateau in any one of those contests. The Rockets' record in those games: 3-2. 

Note that we have not yet discussed how Houston must deal with Ibaka's development into a pick-and-pop machine, Thabo Sefolosha's transformation into a corner three assassin or Kevin Martin's metronomic efficiency. Every game promises to present the Rockets with an unenviable pick-your-poison conumdrum - there's no avoiding that. But most everything Oklahoma City does on offense begins with Durant and Westbrook. They are the head and heart of the beast and, as such, must be the Rockets' primary focus. The Thunder's secondary weapons are going to get good looks, meaning Houston's defensive rotations must be pitch perfect and airtight in order for its players to be in position to provide at least some resistance via a proper contest rather than simply allowing OKC's shooters as much time as they please to line up and let fly.

One more thing that will be critical to Houston’s defensive efforts: defending without fouling. The Thunder take the second most free throw attempts per game and they make the most by a significant margin since they shoot nearly 83 percent from the charity stripe as a team. It’s far easier said than done of course, but the Rockets simply must avoid allowing OKC to parade its way to the free throw line.

TRANSITION D

A Rockets’ bugaboo all season long, the team’s transition defense is about to be put to the test in a very big way. Simply put: Houston cannot allow the Thunder – No. 1 in the NBA in transition offense, per Synergy – to feast on a bevy of fast break dunks and open transition threes. Oklahoma City’s offense is prolific enough as it is without conceding freebies like this:

Buckets like that are backbreakers that make an already arduous challenge even more formidable. They will fire up the Oklahoma City crowd to earsplitting levels on the road and can rapidly silence the Toyota Center rowdies at home. The Rockets’ communication and effort are going to have to be on point from start to finish, and ball security will be of the utmost importance, especially when it comes to preventing the kind of live-ball turnovers for which there is no transition defense yet assembled that can prevent the breakaway dunks that ensue.

This is the task that awaits the Rockets beginning Sunday night. Winning four of seven will be a tall task to say the least. But there’s no better litmus test than going toe-to-toe with the team that has already blazed the path Houston hopes to follow. Three years ago, the Thunder first made the playoffs as an eight-seed and gave the eventual champion Lakers all they could handle in the first round. Now the Rockets get their turn.

“I’m excited,” said Parsons. “I’m happy that we made it and I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface right now. I think we’ve got something really special here and there’s no better matchup than the Thunder for us to go out here and make a statement.”