Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is famous for his analytical view of NBA basketball. One of the central tenets of his approach is a belief in reversion to the mean, the idea that any particularly good or bad performances is but one data point in a set that eventually finds a sane medium. It's basically the law of averages — a team shooting particularly well will eventually start to miss, and one that can't hit anything will figure it out at some point.
On Thursday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets experienced perhaps the most extreme case of reversion to the mean that the NBA has ever seen. The result, a 104-92 home loss, was disappointing, but Houston's shooting stats (40.2 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from beyond the arc) were not so awful as to incite serious soul-searching.
The half-to-half splits, however, are something out of a nightmare. The Rockets were amazing in the first half, scoring 73 points for both their season-best half and the Thunder defense's season-worst mark. The second half was just a bit different — a mere 19 points for Houston, including a fourth quarter in which they were out-scored 21-9. The 54-point drop ranks as the biggest half-to-half scoring differential in NBA history. In fact, only one other team has ever followed a half of at least 70 points with one of 25 points or fewer — the Seattle SuperSonics on December 21, 2001 against the Golden State Warriors. Their 19-point half also tied an NBA record for the worst mark in history.
The best way to explain the Rockets' penthouse-to-poorhouse night is probably with a simple list of stats:
- First half: 26-of-46 (56.5 percent) from the field, 12-of-20 from three-point range, 9-of-11 from the free-throw line, five turnovers
- Second half: 7-of-36 (19.4 percent) from the field, 0-of-14 from three-point range, 5-of-10 from the free-throw line, 12 turnovers
Not surprisingly, the individual stat lines are not so consistent either:
- James Harden: 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting (2-of-5 from long range) in the first half, no points on 0-of-6 shooting (0-of-3 from long range) in the second half
- Dwight Howard: six points on 3-of-5 shooting in the first half, five points on 2-of-8 shooting in the second half
- Chandler Parsons: 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting (3-of-5 from long range) in the first half, four points on 1-of-6 shooting (0-of-4 from long range) in the second half
By comparison, the Thunder were quite steady:
- First half: 21-of-42 (50 percent) from the field, 0-of-8 from three-point range, 17-of-19 from the free-throw line, eight turnovers
- Second half: 17-of-40 (42.5 percent) from the field, 6-of-17 from three-point range, 5-of-6 from the free-throw line, seven turnovers
It's hard to say exactly what caused such a drastic change in the Rockets' fortunes. The team is famous for its reliance on what are typically considered the sport's most efficient shots — near the basket and from beyond the arc. A quick glance at the game's shot chart indicates that they didn't really get away from that strategy at any point on Thursday night.
While they can possibly be criticized for not looking for different shots when things were going so poorly, it's also difficult for a team to get away from what they depend on every single time they take the court. A belief that process will win out means nothing if a group doesn't hold to it when things are going poorly. Houston may just have fallen victim to a particularly horrendous case of bad luck.
On the other hand, their luck was so bad that it might compel questions as to whether this strategy is the best course of action for the team moving forward. An extreme should never serve as a representative case, but it can help expose deeper issues.
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