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What’s Stopping The Rockets

When James Harden left the game with 30 seconds to play in the first quarter, his Houston Rockets trailed the San Antonio Spurs by 3 points. When Harden was blocked from behind at the final buzzer by the ghost of Manu Ginobili, the Rockets were down by 3 points. This brings us back around to one of the oldest maxims in the basketball-nerd universe: The points count the same in the first quarter as they do in the fourth.

Harden’s breakdown late in Game 5, when he went 1-for-6 with one assist and four turnovers, is the top-line takeaway after the Rockets’ Tuesday-night loss. Houston’s MVP candidate doing his best Toney Douglas impersonation at the worst possible time is concerning, both for its immediate effect on the series and for what it portends about how the injury-depleted rotation will fare in the remaining games. But Houston’s problems at the moment run deeper than that.

They are starting too slow

While performance in the biggest moments is undeniably important in the NBA, it isn’t all that matters. Generating good, reliable shots when the clock is winding down and the defense is moving at a devil-may-care clip you don’t see in other periods is an important skill. So is building a lead early in the game, and so is holding onto a lead once you have it. And in the playoffs, the Rockets have been losing first quarters.

PERIOD NET PTS. PER 100 POSSESSIONS
1 -7.3
2 +6.4
3 +0.5
4 +22.0
Clutch +13.9
How the Rockets have performed in the postseason with Harden on the floor

“Clutch” is any time in the last five minutes of regulation or in overtime when the score is within 5 points.

Source: NBA.com

Harden’s first-half numbers were excellent in Game 5, but the deficit by the end of his first-quarter run was no outlier in the Rockets’ postseason. Harden’s net rating in the first quarter is far worse than in any other period, at -7.3 points per 100 possessions. As a team, the Rockets are being outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter of playoff games. During the regular season, they won that period by 8.9 points per 100.

The postseason number is weighed down significantly by Houston’s first-round series with Oklahoma City, in which the Thunder beat the Rockets’ brains in during a few early quarters, only to surrender much or all of those leads later on. But just because a team can punch its way off the mat doesn’t erase the fact that it got its brains beaten in to begin with.

The bench is thin and it’s affecting everyone

Not helping matters: Houston’s best playoff lineups are no longer available. The numbers on the baseline starting five haven’t been great — which makes sense, given that the starters are, by definition, a big part of the reason that those first quarters have been so miserable — but shaking things up will be tough. The season-ending thigh injury to backup center Nene leaves the Rockets without an anchor for the alternative lineups Houston might be forced to try out.

In Game 5, Houston designated Ryan Anderson as their backup center, moving him out of the potent starting lineup, and instead started sixth man Eric Gordon. As the coaches like to tell you, how a team adapts to an injury usually has less to do with the backup than it does with the backup’s backup. In this case, the regular-season starting power forward, Anderson, served as the backup to the backup center, meaning that not only is there no backup power forward, but the starting power forward spot is now an open question as well. That left Houston playing a lot of four-out lineups even though it’s missing Nene, its best four-out center.

Harden is trying to do everything and it shows

The lineup shuffle in Game 5 added to Harden’s overall workload and muted the advantages of the lineups that theoretically remained intact, such as the group of regular starters.

Harden filled in the nominal power forward role when necessary on Tuesday, and the position does play to Harden’s strengths (he’s powerful, and big for his position) while minimizing his weaknesses (lateral quickness that would barely keep him in front of Nate Silver, let alone Manu Ginobili). But in Game 5, at least, the bargain seemed to be a bad one.

Harden’s late-game numbers suggest that he got worn down, but anyone looking at him could have told you that. The real question was whether the Rockets got enough out of their four-perimeter-player lineups to offset the toll those lineups took on the players involved, especially Harden. They didn’t. The only Rockets’ five-man lineups to finish with a positive net rating were ones featuring both Anderson and center Clint Capela. Every lineup that didn’t include both of those guys had a negative net rating or, at best, played San Antonio to a draw.

(The Rockets had a positive standard plus-minus with two other lineups, but they were worse on a per-possession basis due to an imbalance in the number of possessions, which is common when you’re only looking at a single game.)

So what’s to be done?

It’s possible that there’s an obvious answer on the bench. Second-year forward Montrezl Harrell provided good minutes off the bench throughout the season, but he has hardly seen the court in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni has always been known for shortening rotations in the playoffs, but if the four-out lineups keep on tanking, it probably makes more sense to put the season in the hands of an unknown than to keep relying on a known weakness. At the very least, playing Harrell would allow D’Antoni to see more of the starting lineup that’s still outplaying the Spurs, which might help him avoid those first-quarter deficits.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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