The strangest thing about the Houston Rockets’ 126-99 dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night wasn’t the final score, or the Spurs’ bloodless play, or even the 50 3-pointers (and 22 makes) that Houston threw up in the game. Those were all unusual, but in the way that any one-off game in a seven-game series might be. For Rockets fans, however, the big change was that for once in the playoffs, the Rockets looked like the Rockets.
Over the last four seasons,1 Houston general manager Daryl Morey has built the NBA’s model of efficiency. The Rockets of the regular season adhere to the fundamental tenets of Moreyball: shooting threes, driving for layups and drawing fouls. Then the playoffs begin. That’s when Houston has gone off script and played the sort of inefficient basketball it’s built to avoid.
The biggest change has been in the number of threes the team gets. Over the previous three seasons, the Rockets led the league in 3-point attempt rate (the share of field-goal attempts that are 3-pointers) during the regular season before seeing significant dropoffs in the postseason. That’s particularly unusual, considering the playoff field as a whole had a higher rate in this span than the leaguewide regular-season rate.
This season, the Rockets have seen a similar slide toward the mean. But they began with such an overwhelming cushion that although they’ve gone from 46.2 percent of their attempts being threes during the season to 40.3 being so in the playoffs, that 40.3 number would have led all teams during the regular season.
It’s especially promising for the Rockets’ identity that they’ve continued to put up shots even though they haven’t been falling. In the Oklahoma City series, Houston shot 28 percent from three over five games and 169 attempts, including 6-for-37 in the series clincher. This was somewhat because of good coverage — the Thunder held the Rockets to 10 uncontested2 threes per game, five fewer than their regular season average — but mostly it was just a cold spell that seems to have corrected itself. Against the Spurs in Game 1, the Rockets got 14 wide-open threes, right around their season average.
Houston’s free-throw rate (a team’s number of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) hasn’t seen as consistent a downturn in the playoffs as its 3-pointers, but it’s fluctuated. The team has finished in the top two in each of the last four regular seasons, but the fouls dried up in its 2014 and 2016 playoff campaigns. Through six games this postseason, however, the team is drawing free throws at by far the highest rate in the field.
It’s unlikely that the Rockets will play the rest of the series at the level they played Game 1 — the 27-point loss was the worst of the Spurs’ season. But however the series plays out, it’s progress that the Rockets have finally brought Rockets basketball to the playoffs.