How Will the Rockets Attack Late-Game Possessions in the Playoffs?

Considering all the hand wringing in July regarding Russell Westbrook's perceived fit alongside James Harden, it's been largely smooth sailing in Houston throughout 2019-20. Harden and Westbrook's friendship–and Mike D'Antoni's leadership–created a relaxed environment inside the Toyota Center, one in which the Rockets have (mostly) thrived. 40–24 in the Western Conference is certainly a solid mark, and armed with two MVPs, an outside chance at a Finals run is still on the table. Houston's veteran roster is not lacking in confidence.

So what will it take for the Rockets to reach their first Finals of the Harden era? It's a complicated question. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington's performance is critical, as is the play of Houston's backcourt reserves. Yet late in games, the Rockets will only go as far as their superstars take them. Daryl Morey made his offseason gamble to raise the Rockets' ceiling. His plan will truly be tested in the playoffs.

Recent history may not inspire much confidence. There's little sense diving into a rabbit hole, but the postseason efforts from Harden and Westbrook in the past few years won't exactly lead their Hall-of-Fame resumes. Westbrook has shot 38.2% from the field in his last two playoffs. Harden's efficiency measures out better in recent years, though exits vs. Golden State and San Antonio have raised some doubts. For Houston to compete for the Larry O'Brien trophy, recent playoff performances won't cut it. 

Playoff numbers from year's past only paint part of the picture, especially considering previous circumstances. And the first 64 games of 2019-20 provides some reason for optimism. 

Westbrook has been the most reliable crunch-time Rocket in 2019-20, and he appeared to seize the mantle as Houston's closer early in the season. The 2016-17 MVP has made 25-48 shots in clutch situations this season–defined as possessions within five points in the final five minutes of a game–adding 16 assists in 90 minutes. His shot profile down the stretch suggests a touch of offensive evolution. Westbrook is largely eschewing jumpers late in games, opting to plow toward the rim whenever he sees an open lane. The decision has paid dividends. When the Rockets space the floor with four shooters around Westbrook–a key reason for the Clint Capela trade–they often find themselves in favorable situations.

Westbrook's regular-season efficiency is impressive, though it doesn't mean we'll see Harden standing with his hands on his hips down the stretch in the postseason. In fact, it's likely D'Antoni will continue on the same course in the 2020 playoffs as he has in previous seasons. When the Rockets need a basket, they go to Harden. And rightly so. Harden remains the NBA's isolation king with an astounding 1.12 points per iso attempt, and he's tallied off plenty of clutch buckets in 2019-20 alone. Perhaps the equation changes if Westbrook is on an island with a center. In nearly any other scenario, the ball is going to the (soon-to-be) three-time scoring champion.

Harden's isolation dominance spurred a near-unprecedented defensive strategy in 2019-20. A slate of teams began to trap and double-team Harden on nearly every possession in early December, initially creating a problem for D'Antoni and Co. The Rockets hesitated to attack the trap on the perimeter, and they didn't have an outlet who could punish a 4-on-3 situation. Dealing Capela alleviated the issue, as did additional reps against the trapping scheme. The move has largely been scrapped by coaches as a full-game strategy. Yet in crunch time, the strategy resurfaces. 

It's likely we see the Harden trap in the postseason, though it's by no means an unbreakable kryptonite for the Rockets' offense. It's simply a matter of sound decision making. Take Houston's loss to the Clippers on Nov. 22. Harden had the ball atop the key with nine seconds remaining as Paul George sprinted over to guard him alongside Kawhi Leonard. Harden dumped it off to Westbrook, who had two options. Burst toward the rim, or launch a triple. Westbrook hesitated, then went with the latter, clanking the three before a Los Angeles rebound. There's no perfect answer to how Westbrook played the situation. But these are the possessions that will swing Houston's season.

Morey's logic for acquiring Westbrook holds up under further scrutiny. Westbrook's athleticism and explosiveness raises the Rockets' ceiling compared to Chris Paul, and the UCLA product was peaking before the NBA's coronavirus suspension. But an encouraging 64 games provides little more than a tentative plan for the postseason. Morey's trade will be assessed by the Rockets' playoff performance. And their success could hinge on a single late-game possession.