Smart teams, with a good head coach, make adjustments between and during games when things don’t work. Kevin McHale simply isn’t in that category. Otherwise he wouldn’t allow James Harden to do the things he does as the Houston Rockets lose (112-105) to the Portland Trail Blazers for a second time in the postseason, while allowing his defense to become irrelevant, almost like he’s done to Jeremy Lin.
Dwight Howard wanted to have a big game and more of the ball, and he did. He finished with 32 points, including 19 in the first quarter before slowing down, as big men usually do, later on. But it wasn’t Howard fading away that ruined it for the Rockets. It was their atrocious defense for the rest of the game, either on LaMarcus Aldridge (43 points) with another huge game or on anyone else, like leaving Wesley Matthews completely open in the closing moments of the fourth quarter, that cost them the game.
And it’s James Harden. One might say that the Rockets wouldn’t have gotten this far without Harden’s scoring during the regular season. That might be true. But things change in the playoffs. Teams learn and adjust. Harden scored 18 points, but only on 6-of-19 from the field, while getting to the line only four times. He isn’t driving to the basket, he isn’t giving up the ball when he needs to, instead pulling up for bad shots and bad jumpers all the time. He fouled out and played for 44 minutes. That’s the message players get: Play terribly, be a bad teammate and defender, and you don’t get benched.
So far in the postseason he is 14-of-47 from the field (29.8%), including 8-of-32 on jumpshots. Of those jumpshots, 27 have been contested. Most statistical categories between the two teams are quite similar. The Rockets have the offensive rebound advantage and are doing well from the line. Howard, with 14 rebounds, was 6-of-7. But their eFG% is 45%, compared to 52% by the Blazers. Good shots vs bad shots, and making the right choices on offense.
The Blazers did the right job of fixing their defense in the second half, double teaming Howard who didn’t release the ball quickly enough. But the Rockets don’t move around all too well without the ball to give him a chance to find someone open. A team that isn’t coached very well doesn’t do stuff like that, or defend. The beast of what McHale has done over the last two years in terms of improving his players shows its ugly head once again.
Jeremy Lin? He played for 25 minutes, but almost all of them next to Harden. He isn’t getting anywhere like that, as it seems that every miss makes Harden even more determined to prove he can make the wrong basketball work. Lin was only 1-of-5 from the field, missing open shots, but anyone hoping that he’ll become better by putting him in the wrong spots and in the wrong role is setting him and himself up for failure.
Harden’s defense? Nothing new, but painful to watch. The Blazers went with Aldridge because McHale put Omer Asik on him in a failed attempt to resurrect the two-center approach which was bad at the beginning of the season as well. Double teams didn’t come, and even an attempt to keep him away from the ball failed miserably. A team that defends badly all season isn’t suddenly going to become great when there’s no accountability, unless you’re someone the coach feels he has no need for.
Lin isn’t going to get a chance to prove himself in this series, which is slipping away from the Rockets unless something drastic happens. Maybe Harden wakes up and plays like a superstar from here on and out and proves everyone wrong. But playing the right way, or at least the smart way, realizing your weaknesses and strengths usually equals success. The Rockets are doing none of that, and are failing miserably trying to do the opposite.