There are many reasons to be bullish about Houston’s odds to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy: The team possesses top-tier talent, it uses a mathematically advantageous playing style1 and FiveThirtyEight’s model currently gives the Rockets a 26 percent chance to win it all — second in the league behind the Boston Celtics. But the most intriguing reason can be found in Houston’s new starting lineup, the most compelling but frustrating unit on the team: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington and Eric Gordon.
It’s not that Houston couldn’t deviate from that group by plugging in Jeff Green, Danuel House Jr., Austin Rivers or Ben McLemore, should one of them have it going on any given night. But no team is more certain about the five players it will have on the floor in crunchtime, regardless of the opposition on the floor. The group is dynamic, a nightmare to match up against and a monster on defense. They’ve also barely played together — and sometimes, that shows.
The group made its debut midway through the third quarter in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 6, one day after Covington was acquired in a four-team trade that sent center Clint Capela to Atlanta and forced Houston to embrace a permanent small-ball aesthetic. They closed out the back half of the fourth quarter, propelling the Rockets to victory. Their next sighting didn’t come until Feb. 22, and after that, staggered injuries sustained by Gordon and Westbrook never really allowed coach Mike D’Antoni to see exactly what he had. During the regular season, they appeared in just six games and were +9 in 45 regular-season minutes.
The group’s first start didn’t come until more than a week into the playoffs, on Aug. 29, when the Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder by 34 points. Their playing time has nearly doubled in the playoffs to 14.6 minutes per game. It might be a slight stretch to say the Rockets can’t go all the way unless this group coalesces on both ends, but they almost certainly won’t reach their ceiling.
All the ingredients to dominate are in place. They have shooting, vision, grit, length, speed, experience and more than one playmaker. Westbrook, Harden and Gordon are, in their purest form, head-down drivers who love attacking the basket, while the latter two plus Covington and Tucker can’t be left alone behind the arc. And, even with Westbrook’s propensity to gamble more than he probably should as an off-ball defender, none are obvious weak links on that end.
These five are +20 in 73 playoff minutes, a differential that’s surprising when you consider how disappointing they’ve been trying to put the ball in the basket. Their offensive rating in the playoffs has been 96.9 — the second-worst among Houston’s 12 five-man lineups that have played at least 10 playoff minutes — and it was an only slightly better 100.0 during the regular season. Something still isn’t quite right with the group.
The most obvious scapegoat is Westbrook. He made 25.8 percent of his threes during the regular season but is down to 16.7 percent in five playoff games. After cutting threes out of his diet before the shutdown, Westbrook has already launched 12 in this series, a surprising uptick that might be due to a lack of confidence in his strained right quad muscle that won’t yet allow the same explosive force he enjoyed six months ago.
Westbrook’s poor shooting and inability to space the floor can grind Houston’s offense to a halt. Below are a few tries from the right wing that highlight how broken the Rockets look when Harden wants to isolate against a defense that only feels like guarding three of his teammates.
Poor outside shooting carries over to any lineup — Harden’s offensive numbers have soared in these playoffs when Westbrook isn’t on the court — but this one presents a particularly unfamiliar circumstance, where Westbrook doesn’t have the ball as often as someone with his skill set probably should.
The constricted role is glaring, especially against opposing starters and in crunchtime, when the Rockets essentially need Westbrook to crash the offensive glass, cut, draw fouls and, above all else, take advantage of all the space opponents provide when he’s left alone. One ostensible solution is to give him the ball and let him operate with space, but the Thunder and Lakers have so far been more worried about giving up an open three than letting Westbrook go one-on-one.
There was cause for optimism for the unit overall in Sunday’s game, even though it ended in an 8-point loss. According to Second Spectrum, the Harden/Westbrook/Tucker/Covington/Gordon lineup’s shot quality in the regular season and playoffs was 51.91 heading into Game 2, which would fall in the 70th percentile among all teams. Their actual effective field-goal percentage, though, is 48.09. The 3.82-point drop is more than twice as bad as the league-worst Golden State Warriors. In layman’s terms, this means Houston’s starting five is due to erupt. In Game 2, that’s exactly what happened.
In a single game sample size, anything can happen; the Rockets lost on Sunday because they turned it over 17 times, Westbrook (who finished -14) missed six threes, and the Lakers’ Markieff Morris came out of nowhere to make more threes in the first half than in every previous playoff game combined.
But on 25 shots, Houston’s starting five saw its effective field-goal percentage shoot up to 62 percent, which was 9.09 points above their shot quality. They shot 50 percent from behind the arc, a huge jump from the 27.7 percent they had been shooting in the playoffs prior to the game. Their offensive rating was also 123.3 points per 100 possessions — closer to where a group this potent should be. The attention Harden draws creates advantages out of thin air for everybody else. And when the Rockets organize themselves so that someone not named Westbrook is one pass away, they’re usually able to punish a defense that willingly puts itself in rotation.
And their connected, menacing defense is always good to create transition opportunities — which is where Westbrook can place his fingerprints on the game. There are 29 five-man units in this postseason that have logged at least 30 minutes, and none allows fewer points per 100 possessions than Houston’s starting five. Their 84.8 defensive rating is thanks to the turnovers they create2 and how locked in they are on a switch-happy scheme that allows just 56.7 points per 100 possessions. (Overall, the team allows 104.8 points per 100 possessions when they switch a ball screen, which ranks in the 43rd percentile.)
But at the same time, Houston doesn’t switch just to switch, especially when it means Tucker has to come off Anthony Davis, on or off the ball.
They have discipline and gameplan loyalty, plus a collective awareness of who can’t shoot (sorry, Lu Dort) and who’s worthy of a hard closeout. Because they communicate before they clash, even in a small sample size, their success on that end is no coincidence. If they can blend that clear strength with a more consistent scoring attack, the Rockets can indeed win it all.
By inducing uncomfortable behavior out of whoever they’re lined up against, this five-man unit creates the type of questions that are difficult to solve in a seven-game series. Now all they have to do is turn their advantages into reality.
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