It only took five games for the Rockets to advance to the second round of the western conference playoffs. After a game one blowout, the final four games were all decided by six points or fewer, leading some to think that the Rockets got a little lucky in this series. Looking at the stats, the Rockets did not play very well.
For Houston fans, that's great news.
In game one of this series, a 31 point Rockets win, James Harden was 3-11 on threes, Eric Gordon was 2-5, and Pat Beverley was 4-6. After that performance, everyone got worse. If you were to ask someone two weeks ago if the Rockets could win a playoff series while shooting 28% on threes, that person would have most likely said something like; "hmmm, no effing way."
This team lived and died from beyond the arc in the regular season. They shot more threes than anybody in the league, and while they didn't make the highest percentage of them, they took such an obscene amount that they won a lot of games. After all, "threes and frees" is the motto of Moreyball.
Over the course of the regular season, Houston shot worse than 31% on threes 18 times. They lost 12 of those games by an average of 10.2 points. Looking at the full suite of poor shooting games, they were outscored by an average of 4.4 points in those 18 games.
In the five games against Oklahoma City in the playoffs, Houston shot worse than 31% on three-pointers three times. They won two of those games. The overall scoring total was Houston +35, or an average of winning by almost 12 points per game.
That's a big deal. If Houston has figured out ways to win when they're not shooting well, they're close to unstoppable.
In the clip below, Harden hits a three, but it's illustrative of how their offense works. It's a simple pair of screens for Harden. It starts with Eric Gordon forcing Andre Roberson off Harden; then Nene is the 2nd wall for the new defender (Victor Oladipo). Steven Adams is left to decide whether it's safe to sag back into the paint. In this instance, it wasn't.
But what is his other choice? If Adams is one step closer to Harden, he'll allow Nene a better run to the basket. If Roberson - a very good defender - pinches down on Nene's roll, Eric Gordon is flaring open for an uncontested three. The best thing OKC could do to stop this is for Adams to step out, Roberson to crash down on Nene (he does an OK job of it), and Oladipo to go straight to Eric Gordon.
By the time Harden is pulling up for the shot, Nene is on his roll to the basket and Adams is too deep. Even as he goes up, Harden could lob the ball to the elbow and a slashing Nene would at least have a smaller defender on him inside the paint. Roberson may well be in position to cut him off, but the options here are 1) Harden for three, 2) Nene on a dunk, or 3) Gordon for three.
That's how Houston wins basketball games.
Beyond this play, take a look at the series stats. Ryan Anderson was 3-24 on threes in five games. James Harden was 12-50. Trevor Ariza was 3-16. Pat Beverley, the hero of this series and the new fan-favorite of every team except OKC, paced the Rockets by going 9-22. Lou Williams matched him.
Let that sink in. The Houston Rockets just won a series (in convincing fashion, no less) in which Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams combined to make the same number of three-pointers as James Harden, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza. Williams and Beverley played a combined 280 minutes. Harden, Anderson, and Ariza combined for over 500.
There is a very real possibility that the reason Houston won this series so quickly was just that Oklahoma City wasn't very good. Yes, Russ Westbrook is an unbelievable player. Yes, he has the ability to swing any game at any time. Yes, the Thunder were good enough to make the playoffs. But no, I don't think OKC was overly good. The Thunder were the league's worst three-point shooting team in the regular season, so as long as Houston could keep them shooting threes, the Rockets would have a pretty good shot of winning. OKC shot 135 of them in five games.
Whatever the reason, the Houston Rockets are in round two of the playoffs. They'll most likely meet the Spurs, which is a travesty from a basketball standpoint. It is a true shame to see these two meeting in the 2nd round and speaks to the unfairness of the playoffs as a whole.
If Houston can beat tough teams while shooting 28% on threes, imagine Houston shooting 40%. This could be a heck of a run.