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The Heart Of The Matter

February 24, 2013 12:25 am EST

Examining some of the real reasons behind the Rockets' 105-103 loss to Washington

HOUSTON - Watch a team shoot 46 three-pointers in a loss and it’s a safe bet someone will utter the words, ‘Live by the three, die by the three’ within 60 seconds of the game’s conclusion. It’s one of those catchphrases that, for better or worse, has stood the test of time even though, like most of its longstanding brethren in the realm of bromides, the message it conveys may in fact be more inherently flawed that the offensive philosophy it is attempting to debunk.

The Houston Rockets did indeed launch 46 triples Saturday night. That much is true. They also eventually fell 105-103 to the Wizards after failing to protect a 17-point lead. That is a fact as well. But to link those two things together in such a way that directly blames the former for the latter is overly simplistic at best and downright disingenuous at worst, especially on a night when Houston hit more than 41 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.

The Rockets’ offense is predicated on taking open shots - simple as that - and the vast majority of Houston's 46 threes were of the open variety. That's not unusual of course; with their dual ability to dissect defenses with dribble penetration and make opponents pay with their floor spacing, the Rockets frequently feast on a heaping helping of open three-point looks. There’s a reason, after all, that Houston ranks second in the NBA (behind only New York) in three-point attempts per game. And when perusing those rankings you will rapidly notice the teams that take a lot of threes often do a heck of a lot more living than they do dying. To wit, seven of the clubs that rank in the league’s top-10 in three-point attempts per game also reside among the ten most efficient offenses the NBA has to offer. The three-point shot is a weapon and smart teams know how to wield it.

All of which leads to yet another important factoid: Houston’s offense is also built upon maximizing its use of the highest value shots in the game – corner threes and attempts at the rim. The Rockets rank No. 1 in the first category and No. 3 in the second, and that is a massive reason why this über young team has so rapidly become one of the most explosive offensive clubs in the league. During the first half of Saturday night’s game, Houston put on a clinic in demonstrating the devastating power behind that philosophy. The Rockets’ shot chart from the first two quarters was remarkable in its simplicity, with virtually everything coming either at the rim or from beyond the arc. The results were just as staggering: 13 made threes on 28 attempts as Houston took am 11-point lead to halftime. In the pick-your-poison puzzle the Rockets present to their opponents on a nightly basis, the Wizards had chosen to allow Houston to fire away from distance and the Rockets were only too happy to take full advantage of all those open looks.

In the second half, however, foreboding flaws increasingly began revealing themselves in the Rockets’ style of play; foibles, it should be noted, that had little to do with an overreliance on the three-point shot. The zip and ball and body movement that are always the telltale signs of this team performing at maximum efficiency subsided significantly. Perhaps it was the result of being shorthanded for a third straight game. Maybe the players began feeling the effects of playing their third game in four nights. And Washington’s vastly improved defense, boosted by its decision to start switching on screens, certainly had something to do with it as well. Whatever the case, the Rockets’ offense transformed from powerful to pedestrian. The open looks dried up amid the kind of poor execution that often gives birth around these parts to those ill-favored buzzwords such as “sticky” and “stagnant.”

Note, however, that Houston’s effectiveness did not diminish because it leaned too heavily on the three-ball – the Rockets actually took 10 fewer threes in the second half than they did in the first. No, Houston’s offense languished in large part because the trey was too often the only working weapon in its arsenal Saturday night. The lack of pace meant fewer easy buckets in transition. The stagnation in the half-court led to an increase in the number of turnovers and wasted possessions. Gone were the extra passes and strong off-ball cuts that opened up driving lanes for forays to the rim. As a result, the Rockets received 11 fewer free throw attempts and scored 12 fewer paint points than their season averages. Elite offenses crush opponents with a multipronged and diverse offensive attack. But in the second half, if Houston wasn’t generating a good look from three, it frequently wasn’t generating good looks at all. 

Notice, too, that nothing up to this point has been said about the Rockets’ defense. And one quick look at Washington’s second half shooting percentages reveal a problem far more damaging than any that had to do with Houston’s affinity for three-point shooting Saturday night. The Wizards hit a whopping 64 percent of their shots in the final two quarters, including a 68 percent mark in the third period that went a long way in reinforcing the notion that Washington had no intention of lying down and accepting its fate after falling so far behind in the first half. The undersized Rockets got bludgeoned in the paint for much of the evening. The Wizards also did well to knock down some of the shots that Houston would welcome them to take every time. Either way you slice it, however, the Rockets’ inability to get stops burned them in both phases of the game since it also put a significant damper on their ability to score in transition in the second half.

So yes, there were very real reasons Houston dropped a tight, tough game to a much-improved Wizards squad Saturday night. Just know that those reasons had little to do with a clichéd bit of conventional wisdom that has long since worn out its welcome.    

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

Yeah, we were sticky again tonight. We didn’t have great movement and our spacing got a little bit funky. We chased the ball a little too much.

(relax after having a 17-point lead?)

We can’t relax. We’ve got to keep playing. We had plenty of opportunities to win that game. They were making plays at the end of the game and we didn’t.

They went inside a little bit more, Okafor got the ball a little bit more. But really it was we had turnovers and empty possessions where we didn’t move the ball. We just got stagnant. We did not have a good second half.

(on play of Motiejunas and Beverley)

They played well. They played well last night, too.

On Rockets’ forward Chandler Parsons:

“He made some shots early, we had some ball movement, but we made some shots. We’re going to shoot threes and we shot an extraordinarily large amount of threes tonight. But we shoot a lot of threes as a team. We didn’t get enough penetration, enough ball movement.”

(on Jeremy Lin)

Jeremy wasn’t feeling good before the game. He was a little bit under the weather so we tried to keep his minutes moderate so he could have energy.

JEREMY LIN

I’m not sure what it is. It’s a flu or cold or something … I should have played better. I could have helped the team out more than I did tonight. Now going to get back, get ready for the next one and move on.

We came in here, we wanted to get a win and we didn’t, so everyone’s going to be (disappointed), starting with me – obviously I didn’t do pretty much anything tonight.

On what changed in the second half:

“I think in the beginning they were helping a lot off the corners so we were able to hit looks. Guys were just able to get a lot of open shots and threes. But in the second half, they did more switching so they weren’t in rotation as much.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

We got real stagnant in that third quarter with our offense. We slowed it down when we shouldn’t have. We didn’t get the easy transition buckets that were giving us success in the first half. They made adjustments on defense but I thought we could have done some things differently and we didn’t get any stops down the stretch.

(when teams start switching on screens like that, is that the time to get to the rim?)

Definitely. We were hurting them with the three in the first half and I think they made adjustments and switched out and didn’t allow us as much, so we’ve got to be aggressive and get to the hole. It all really starts with defense and not getting any stops.

(on all the three-point attempts)

I guess we were just open so we took the open shots. I don’t know how many we hit but I don’t remember us taking too many bad ones. We were just taking what the defense gave us.

On the Wizards’ second half:

“They hit shots. We were going under on John (Wall) and he hit shots. (Bradley) Beal was hitting shots all night. There was nothing really that we were doing, we had a game plan and they were just making us pay by hitting shots. There was nothing they were doing that we hadn’t seen before.”

WIZARDS HEAD COACH RANDY WITTMAN

On tonight’s performance:

“That game took a lot out of me so I can only imagine the stress on the players, but we pulled this one out tonight. I really don’t know where to begin other than the stand point that we talked about the Houston Rockets approach before the game. After we watched Houston make their move right before the trade line this team decided they would spread you out and shoot from the perimeter. What we have done from a defensive standpoint made it even harder to adjust in the middle of a game. Ultimately we knew they would come in and make threes, that’s a given. I told the team not to get discouraged and continue to give it all you got.”

On the play drawn up at the end of the game:

“I went big with 21 seconds at the end of the game, and I said whoever has the smallest defender on them that’s who I want the ball to go to. I’m a firm believer in going at mismatches, and the flow of the game. I felt Emeka Okafor played outstanding, and he was doing a great job when he got the ball down there. I coach by feel, I don’t have a set play we will go to every time. Houston stayed small all game long and I just decided to go big and it worked out well.”

On the play of Bradley Beal:

“Bradley makes plays. He has done it for us before, and I have faith that he will continue to. Against Oklahoma City he hit that big shot and tonight he got a crucial rebound to help seal the deal. I will certainly not let him off the hook for missing a free throw, but he played well tonight.”

WIZARDS GUARD JOHN WALL

On the game:

“Coach talked to us about it. We knew with James (Harden) basically handling the ball, him and Jeremy Lin, they do a good job of having four shooters out on the floor and one big. It was tough for us having to get in, and close out to their shooters. We just wanted to make it tough and make them make contested shots. In the second half, we kinda got into it defensively and they missed a couple and we executed on the other end.”

On their success against teams with winning records:

“I think we got to play the same way. When we are on the road, we don’t play the same way we need to when we are at home, playing as a team. We all know what it takes now, we all understand. To finish the season the way we want to, we need to do a better job. We owe Toronto because we didn’t have the best game that we’ve had of our season. I had a terrible game leading my team, and other guys didn’t step up. We know what we need to do to stop them.”

On running a play for the final play:

“I know if I get the ball they are going to sink in like they do every game at the end of quarters. I’m basically the only one that will penetrate. We get them moving a little bit, they double the post, and we swing it to find the easiest outlet. We catch them off guard, they usually think I’m getting the ball or Brad is getting the ball, but we can go to the low post, and those guys can finish or they can make free throws. It makes it tough.”

On Bradley Beal:

“I think he is playing big. He’s finding his comfort zone, the way he wants to play. You see we ran a couple of plays for him in the pick and roll, he’s also making plays and finding other guys. He’s doing a great job of rebounding for us, and doing things on the defensive end. He’s really maturing throughout every game he plays during his rookie season. It kinda helps when you have guys like Nene, me, Mek (Emeka), and other veterans on the team that are talking him through it. It’s kinda easier when you have veterans making the game easier for you.”

WIZARDS GUARD BRADLEY BEAL

On his final rebound

“I thought Asik was going to box me out. I kinda disguised it like I wasn’t gonna go in. Most bigs, they don’t ever box out a guard. It was a long rebound and I just ended jumping up for it. I was in the right place at the right time I guess.”

On what they changed in the second half:

“Our rotations. Sometimes we got sucked in way too much. We were giving them a lot of threes, we wanted them to take a lot of threes. That’s what we wanted. We weren’t going to give them easy layups, we liked our chances with them just hitting threes all game. We were able to stick it out, contest threes late.”

On the final play:

“They went small, and Mek (Emeka) was so excited to get the ball on the pick. We went to the block and just spaced out and if they doubled he would kick it to the guy who was open. He was able to make a play and he got fouled.”

WIZARDS CENTER EMEKA OKAFOR

On the Wizards:

“We’re versatile. The five of us on the court, everybody can score, from every single position and we all have confidence in each other and know when we can exploit matchups. That just shows confidence.”

On the final play of the game:

“This team is pretty unique where you legitimately have guys at every position who can put the ball in the bucket. So at the end of the game Coach (Wittman) drew up a play and said hey, ‘whoever the mismatch is on is who we’re going to’. It wasn’t for me or Nene, it’s whoever (Carlos) Delfino was guarding.”

On Bradley Beal:

“It’s only his first year. He’s getting a lot of big-time pressure game experience. He’s just growing from it.”

On making adjustments to get the win:

“We went big and then just exploited them. We were able to figure it out on defense, and didn’t really lose a step.”

WIZARDS FORWARD TREVOR ARIZA

On the win:

“It was a team effort. We made some easy shots, got to the basket a little bit, so once you get to the basket and get a couple easy ones, the basket starts to look a little bigger.”

On the Wizards’ focus:

“We’ve got to worry about ourselves, and that’s what I’ve taken pride in these last few games, just worrying about what we need to do and not really falling in to the trap of other teams. When we focus on ourselves we do a pretty good job.”

On the Wizards’ defense:

“That’s what we try to do period. We try to let our defense take charge in the game. We know we’re a good defensive time so when we sit down and buckle up, we’re pretty good.”

On Bradley Beal:

“He’s legit. He’s a player. When you’re a player you make plays and do things to help your team win.”