Wednesday April 29th, 2015

The Rockets finished their first-round series against the Mavericks on Tuesday, though not before doing most everything in their power to keep Dallas alive. This was as sloppy a game as we've seen from Houston in these playoffs. Yet the sum total of its miscues could never seem to bridge the divide in active talent between the two teams. Every would-be run for Dallas stunted short, which in effect ended the season for Dirk Nowitzki and Co. by way of a final 103-94 defeat in Game 5.

Houston coughed up the ball 21 times, 14 of which resulted in a live-ball turnover to give Dallas a chance at immediate offense. Seventeen times a Rockets player stepped to the free throw line and missed. Far too often a Mavericks shooter was left open—even Dirk Nowitzki (22 points, 8-23 FG, 14 rebounds), who was given any look beyond the arc he wanted—to make or miss on his shot's own merits. That so many of those shots died in their bounce off the rim was more indicative of good fortune than solid defense.

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Yet Houston won anyway by pulling out just a few more plays than its challenger. Dallas had trimmed the deficit to five on four separate occasions in the fourth quarter, the last of which came with just three minutes remaining. In each case it squandered opportunities with mistakes of its own, the most maddening of which came after the Mavericks had made a defensive stand. As constructed, this Dallas team doesn't have the luxury to waste its stops. Too much effort, execution, and good luck go into every miss for some careless decision to follow.

Those blunders gave the Rockets mulligan after mulligan on possessions gone wrong. James Harden (28 points, eight assists) capitalized happily with slithering drives that created either his own scoring opportunity or one for Houston's trio of athletic finishers. Harden and Dwight Howard (18 points, 19 rebounds), in particular, jammed Dallas' defense with the dilemma of whether to help on the drive at the expense of the law. Their hesitation, though natural, proved costly. 

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Terrence Jones (15 points on 11 shots, five rebounds) and Josh Smith (20 points on 12 shots, eight rebounds), too, shaped the game with momentum-nullifying plays. Both forwards consistently found themselves in the pockets of the floor the Mavs had neglected, mostly as a result of some breakdown elsewhere on the floor. A kickout to Jones, for example, repeatedly hung the slow-footed Nowitzki out to dry. There was nothing he could do to keep up with Jones's pump fake and dribble, and nothing the Mavs' rotational defense could do that didn't come without some other cost. This is how the Rockets overwhelm. There's Harden, Howard, and a barrage of three-pointers to account for. But at some point a mid-help defense has to offer up something: a gasp of air through a closing window. Houston swells to create in that space through its versatile support types.

A tighter defensive outfit might have strained players like Jones and Smith a bit by keeping pressure on their dribble and shading more closely on their shots. That's just not within the power of players like Nowitzki, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Charlie Villaneuva, all of whom line up at their respective positions from a place of athletic disadvantage. That Dallas' rotation is in a place where two of those three often must play together (sometimes in conjunction with Monta Ellis or J.J. Barea, neither of much defensive service) says all that needs to be said about the state of this team defense. 

[]Over the last three games, the Mavericks swallowed those limitations, pushed aside the Rajon Rondo episode, and made an honest go of this series. With a little more here or there, the outcome of the series might have been different. That things turned out as they did is not for lack of effort or focus, both of which were in sure supply as Dallas clawed for its playoff life. Those players involved did what they could and in the case of reserve-turned-starter Al-Farouq Aminu (14 points, nine rebounds, five steals), even more than could be reasonably expected. But a team that invested heavily in Parsons and sacrificed valued rotation pieces to acquire Rondo, ultimately had neither when it mattered most. It's a minor miracle that the Mavericks were in a position to do much of anything at all.

Houston did the only thing it needed to in this series: Survive. Some of the leakier sequences from the Rockets defense, as well as the periodic failures to get back and pick up in transition, were troubling for a team that eyes the Western Conference crown. But there's time yet to address those issues and consolation in the fact that Howard looks to be his shot-erasing self. In Game 5 he notched four blocks and four steals without credit for how he made Ellis (25 points, 11-26 FG, six turnovers) and Barea (six points, 3-12 FG, nine assists) hesitate on their drives to the rim. Neither much wanted to test Howard; Barea tried and failed while Ellis kept far away with mid-range jumpers. So long as Howard is that player, the Rockets have the defensive potential to hang in any series.

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They'll need it against either the Clippers or Spurs, both embroiled in a desperate, ahead-of-schedule classic across the playoff bracket. San Antonio is hobbled and Los Angeles running its starters into the ground. All the while Houston waits, prepping for its opponent while resting out a few extra days. This is a team to be taken seriously, its needed maintenance only the kind that should concern any championship contender. With a clumsy win behind them, the Rockets trudge on.

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