Turbulent Times

Examining how Houston will fare without Russell Westbrook: A Rockets-Thunder series preview

Composite photo by Jack Brame

When it was first reported that Russell Westbrook would miss at least the first few games of the first round, Rockets fans fell into a panic and self-loathing state. To some extent, the panic is understandable. Having a star player go down with injury days before the playoffs is never a great place to be in. Star players, unlike role players, have qualities and on-court production that are irreplaceable.

The Rockets are also playing a really good first round opponent in the Oklahoma City Thunder. I will give my prediction soon, but this injury just made the series much more like a traditional 4-5 matchup in that it's closer to a toss up now. However, the self-loathing from Rockets fans is probably a good place to draw the line. Houston, even without Russell Westbrook, will still be (and should still be) considered the favorites to win this series.

Prediction:

Rockets in 6

Why?

Part of why playoff basketball is exciting is because it's incredibly sophisticated, matchup-driven, and you can attack a series from a bunch of different angles. However sometimes, and I'm guilty of this too, we overanalyze it. We try and give reasons why we reach certain conclusions beyond what is right in front of our face. Sometimes playoff basketball can be simple.

That's kind of what's happening here. I'm tempted to give you a convoluted explanation as to why I arrived at this prediction, but my answer is quite simple. The Rockets, for at least 36 minutes a game, will have a top five NBA player surrounded by average shooting at four other positions. And the Thunder, as good as they are (and they're quite good), don't have that. The Rockets, in theory, should be good enough to defeat this first round opponent because they have James Harden.

In practice, there are of course a number of factors that could prevent the Rockets from toppling the Thunder. Let's get into that.

1. The minutes without Harden

This is where Houston will miss Westbrook's presence the most. There will be 8 to 12 minutes a game where the Rockets will be on the floor without a dynamic playmaker. The franchise hasn't had to deal with this problem in the playoffs since 2017. As it was then, this will be a glaring issue until it's not.

The Rockets will have to lean on Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon to take on extra ball handling and playmaking responsibility. Rivers has historically thrived with the team in these circumstances. Rivers plays better with the ball in his hands and the Rockets haven't needed him to play like that unless there's an injury. Rivers will likely see a significant uptick in scoring.

Gordon, on the other hand, just returned from an ankle injury and hasn't caught a rhythm shooting the ball from three-point range this entire year (31.6% from deep the season). It's really hard to say what Rockets fans should expect of him come playoff time. As in past years, he is Houston's biggest X-factor going into the playoffs.

In general, expect the Rockets to be in the red when Harden sits. The goal should be as close to neutral minutes as possible. If they can be -4.0 per 100 possessions instead of -11.0 or something like that, that's a huge plus.

2. The rebounding

Already a weak rebounding team (27th in rebound percentage), the Rockets are losing one of their best rebounders in Westbrook. Even though their strategy as a team is to forgo the rebounding battle every night in favor of turnovers and deflections, there's still a limit to how awful you can be on the glass. Players who have a history of being good rebounder (P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, James Harden, and Jeff Green) will need to help pick up the slack until Westbrook returns.

3. The shooting

On the season, the Rockets are in the bottom third of the league (21st) in three-point percentage. For context, Houston was 12th last year. They have to be at least average to have any chance in this series. A lot of their struggles this year have come from Eric Gordon's struggles, but everywhere else, they really only have two above average shooters (James Harden and Ben McLemore).

As stated earlier, the Rockets should still be favored to win because they have Harden surrounded by shooting. You need both of those elements to beat a team as good as the Thunder. The Rockets could get away with bad shooting in a playoff game before because Russell Westbrook would generate a ton of unlikely points. They don't have that in their back pocket anymore, so every game they lose will most likely be because they shot poorly from beyond the arc.

I used to have a category in these playoffs previews titled "most important stat". It's not necessary for this preview. The most important stat is obviously going to be Houston's three-point percentage.

4. Houston's defense

I often talked about Houston's defense this year as what could propel them into that top tier of title contendership. For the purposes of this series, they really only need to continue being average. James Harden plus shooters will provide a close proximity to what the Rockets were offensively during the regular season, so they don't need to become something they're not (yet). Losing Russell Westbrook may actually help Houston defensively.

If Eric Gordon defends like he has in past playoff series for the Rockets, they only have to account for one sub-par defender in their starting lineup (Harden). The bench is another story, but in totality, it's not hard to see Houston cobbling together an average defense from minutes 1-43 of every game.

The last five minutes of games will be a huge undertaking for the Rockets. The Thunder have a beast of a closing lineup that revolves around their three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. Here are their numbers together for the season:

Offensive RTG: 127.1
Defensive RTG: 98.6
Net RTG: +28.6

These numbers are insane for a group that's played together as much as they have (401 minutes). The Rockets without Westbrook will be tempted to close games with Harden, Gordon, House, Covington, and Tucker. Tucker and Covington are versatile defenders who are capable of defending perimeter players, but they will likely have their hands full with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. This is the central dilemma of Houston's closing lineup against the Thunder.

Defending those three guards will likely be a huge undertaking for Harden, Gordon, and House. Gordon has been a reliable playoff defender, but House and Harden are too inconsistent to leave both out on the floor in these moments. It may be prudent for Houston to swap out House for Austin Rivers when they see Oklahoma City pulling out this lineup. Rivers is a more consistent one-on-one defender against quicker guards and, more importantly, asking one inconsistent defender (Harden) to step up in these moments is more feasible than asking two.

Either way, it's going to be interesting to see how Houston fares defensively against an equally guard heavy team.

There's no doubt that the Rockets are in a tough spot. If it were up to them, they would be at full health playing the Utah Jazz in round one. Things didn't go their way and they're here now. The Thunder are better and they have a leg up health-wise. With that said, Houston should still be favored to win this series.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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