What We Learned About the Rockets in Round 1
The Houston Rockets put an end to Russell Westbrook’s historic season Tuesday night with a 105-99 victory. They will now face the winner of the San Antonio Spurs/ Memphis Grizzlies series. I had predicted before the series started that the Rockets would win in six games, but I was blown away by the performance of the Houston bench. Despite video game numbers from Westbrook, the Rockets showed how much team chemistry they have going forward and will look to show it in the second round. Before we look ahead to their next opponent, let’s take a look at what they did so well against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As well as James Harden and the rest of the starters played throughout the series, the bench won this series for the Rockets. Harden and Westbrook were close to cancelling out each other throughout and no Rocket or Thunder starter made much of an impact on the series. What put Houston over the top was their three men off the bench. Nene, Lou Williams, and Eric Gordon made their presence felt in this series in an array of ways.
Let’s start with Lou Williams. Williams seemed to knock down shot after shot when called upon no matter where it was on the court. He even pulled out his best James Harden impression and was able to get fouled beyond the three-point line four times during the series. In five games against the Thunder, he led the Rockets’ bench with 18.8 PPG.
Eric Gordon had just as much of an impact as Williams on the perimeter with his ability to create shots on the outside and help open the floor with the pick and roll. He averaged 13.6 PPG in the first round but took less shots than Williams throughout the series.
Not to take anything from the two guards, but Nene had the best series of any bench player for either team. Nene shot an astonishing 28 of 33 from the floor and even scored a team high 28 points on 12-12 from the floor during a Game 4 victory. He made his presence felt underneath the basket collecting 6.6 rebounds per game and helped Harden execute the pick and roll to perfection. Without him on the floor giving quality minutes, the Rockets may not be in the position they are now.
Mike D’Antoni very well may win the Coach of the Year Award when the NBA season comes to an end. At times in this series the Rockets were not playing their best basketball, but D’Antoni helped keep them on the right path throughout the series. He simply out-coached the Thunder’s Billy Donovan and it showed on the court. When James Harden wasn’t playing well, D’Antoni started to feed the ball inside to Nene. He also knew when a player like Lou Williams was shooting well, leave him in the game until he cools down. Donovan, on the other hand, would take Westbrook out in the middle of a Thunder run just to get him rest.
Moving forward, the Rockets will need D’Antoni to make the difficult judgment calls in the next round. If he ends up going against the Spurs and Gregg Popovich, he will have the tall task of trying to out-coached one of the best in the business.
The Rockets showed during the first round why they are one of the top teams remaining in the playoffs. If they are able to keep up consistent bench play as well as normal outings from James Harden, then Houston may find themselves fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals come end of May.