Rocket time

March, 30, 2011
3/30/11
4:57
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Kyle Lowry
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Now running the NBA's best offense: Kyle Lowry.

Remember the Rockets who gave the Lakers all that trouble in the playoffs a while back? They're just about all gone.

At the trade deadline, the Rockets traded away Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier. They had already lost Yao Ming to injury. What's left of Tracy McGrady is in Detroit, and after a stint in Sacramento, Carl Landry is filling in for an injured David West in New Orleans.

In return they got long-term investments: draft picks, a prospect who's in the D-League (Hasheem Thabeet) and a benchwarmer (Goran Dragic).

And yet, the Rockets are suddenly one of the NBA's best teams, on an 11-4 tear.

In the five weeks since the trade, the Rockets have literally the best offense in the NBA. Their defense for most of the season has been bad, but over the same period they are just outside the top ten.

Thanks to this incredible run, the left-for-dead Rockets are now breathing down the necks of the Grizzlies and Hornets for the West's last playoff spot -- and they could make it too. They're playing better than those teams, and the Hornets have a tougher schedule and a key injury.

How is this happening?
It's undeniable that those midseason trades changed everything for the Rockets -- but as much as Dragic is a promising young NBA guard, it's not about the new guys. Based on conversations with scouts, insiders and front office people around the NBA, here is some of what's happening:
  • Kyle Lowry has been playing out of his mind. He used to play behind Mike Conley in Memphis, and more recently split minutes with Aaron Brooks. Now he's running the show, and evidently he ought to have been doing that all along. Plus/minus numbers suggest playing him long minutes helps the Rockets' defense significantly. Also, his shooting, particularly from 3-point land, has been exceptional of late, which can't be expected to last, but has led to his outplaying the likes of Chris Paul in recent weeks. And to reiterate, now that he's playing long minutes, the team's offense is the most efficient in the NBA.
  • The Lowry/Brooks competition is over. As much as they talked nice about sharing time, it was evident to many observers that Lowry and Brooks both felt pressured to prove their worth in short minutes -- especially after Lowry but not Brooks got an offseason contract extension. The result was some ballhogging and bad shots, even as Brooks' efficacy was reduced by a nagging ankle injury. Now Lowry is free to run the team as he sees fit without worry about losing his starting job.
  • Kevin Martin is as efficient as ever. His PER is around 22, along with the likes of Amare Stoudemire, Zach Randolph, Manu Ginobili and Blake Griffin, making him one of the most efficient wing scorers anywhere.
  • Removing Shane Battier from the offense helps. Remember the heyday of the Sacramento Kings under Rick Adelman? There was a ton of passing and movement. Movement is not Battier's thing at this point in his career. Now, when Lowry initiates the offense, there are cutters at nearly every position. Chase Budinger, who has been mopping up most of Battier's minutes, has made the Houston offense more efficient most of the season, even though he endured a wicked shooting slump to start the year.
  • Players know they'll play. The Rockets often get productive minutes from young players like Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson. But before the trades, those guys never knew how much they'd be playing. Now, Lee's minutes have stabilized, and Patterson at least knows he'll get into just about every game.
  • The schedule. Over the five weeks, the Rockets have had a fairly easy schedule with a lot of road games. In addition, post-Battier they have been punished somewhat by elite wing scorers, but they have been lucky not to face too many of those lately. (When they have, for instance against the Heat, they have had trouble.)
  • Something to prove. Sources say the players left on the roster after the trade deadline felt a little disprespected -- by the media, by the fans, even by their own front office which had evidently made a bet on the future at the expense of the present. The result was a collective commitment to prove the doubters wrong.

Exciting as the last few weeks have been for the Rockets -- arguably, this team right now is the greatest evidence to date that Daryl Moreyball works -- it is still a long shot. John Hollinger's playoff odds give the Rockets just about a 30 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Hornets have a tough upcoming schedule, though, and Hollinger's odds don't know the Hornets are missing their second-best player in David West.

There are many different ways to project this race, from Hollinger's great tool to manually looking at every game all three teams have remaining. Both approaches suggest the West's last playoff team will finish with 45, or more likely 46, wins.

That means the Rockets almost have to run the table -- at 39-35 they can lose just one of their remaining eight to get to 46. And the challenge is acute tonight, when they play the tail end of a back-to-back against a surprisingly tough Philadelphia team that has been a Rocket nemesis: The Sixers have won six of the last seven meetings.

As the season started, a late March Rockets at Sixers probably didn't look like such a hot ticket, but it looms large now. For Houston -- with the Spurs, Hawks, Hornets and Mavericks remaining on the schedule -- it's basically a must-win to keep this fairy tale run alive.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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