Houston, We Had a Problem?

After one of the league’s most inauspicious starts to the new season, it turns out the sky might not be falling in Houston after all. With hopes high, and expectations even higher following last year’s trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets proceeded to fall flat on their faces in their first three games, losing each contest by at least 20 points.

Their terrible start featured lowlights such as losing to a Denver Nuggets team who finished with last season’s 7th worst record, squandering a 21-point second-half lead to the Miami Heat, and James Harden shooting a miserable 20% from the field and 9% from three. The Ty Lawson/Harden backcourt looked an absolute mess, and it appeared everything that could go wrong, had gone wrong for the Rockets.

With Dwight Howard suspended the first game against Denver, and battling his chronic lower-back issues, second-year big man Clint Capela was thrust into the spotlight. While Capela moonlighted admirably in Dwight’s absence, it’s obvious the Rockets miss Howard’s presence in the middle.

Between their slow shooting start and Dwight’s will-he-play won’t-he-play nature, some were wondering if the Rockets were bound for a disappointing 2015 campaign. And then the Rockets proceeded to be the Rockets in their next three games. Since their putrid start, Houston has gone 4-0, including a win against the Thunder, and a Western Conference rematch in L.A. against the Clippers where the re-emergence of the artist formerly known as James Harden was well overdue.

In Friday night’s win against the Kings, Harden went off for 43 points on 13-23 shooting, including 4-10 from three, dishing out 13 assists, and collecting 6 rebounds in the process. In their Saturday win against the Clippers, Harden had 46 points on 14-26 shooting, including 5-10 from three and 13-14 from the free throw line.

The Rockets will need more shooting performances like this from Harden and Co. if they hope to remain afloat in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Another potential determinant of their success will be Dwight Howard and his health. No stranger to back ailments, Howard has been sidelined in three of Houston’s first seven games. When he has played, though, Howard has been effective for Houston on both ends. In less than 30 minutes per game, the big man has averaged 17 points on 58% shooting, adding 12.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game.

In his time in Houston, the Rockets have become accustomed to life without Dwight. Last season alone, Howard missed or came off the bench in 41 games, with Houston winning 27 of those games. While commendable, it’s clear that the Rockets miss Howard’s rebounding, rim-protecting, and perhaps most importantly, his finishing around the rim on offense.

It seems clear the team is doubling-down on their volume three point shooting philosophy which saw them hoist more than 32 threes a game, setting the league record for threes attempted and made in a season. The team is on the same course this year, once again averaging more than 32 shots from long distance.

Is Houston closer to the team that shot 24% from three-point range in their first three games or the team that’s shot 36% since then? The answer could very well determine their success or failure this season.

The Houston Rockets are the very embodiment of the old adage “live by the three, die by three.” Given their predilection for volume three point shooting, Houston can shoot themselves in or out of a game, a series, and potentially a championship. If they’re able to build off of their success of the last three games, Houston will likely find themselves back at the top alongside the rest of the Western Conference’s best.

However, if they’re closer to the three point shooting team of their first three games, and Dwight Howard is constantly addled by his back, the Rockets will be in for a rough year. It’s clear to me, though, that the constitution and philosophies of this team are largely the same as last season, and injuries notwithstanding, Houston won’t have a problem.

photo via llanaba