We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop since last Wednesday, when Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley had suffered a torn ligament in his left wrist that could require season-ending surgery. Well, the dreaded footfall came Monday afternoon, courtesy of Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Rockets guard Pat Beverley has opted for surgery to repair ligaments in left wrist, source said. Will miss the remaining of season, playoffs
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) March 30, 2015
There's no good time to lose your starting point guard, of course, but nine games before the start of the playoffs seems a particularly bad one.
That's especially true considering Houston's already working through its stretch run without several other rotation pieces, including forwards Terrence Jones (sidelined by a rib injury/partially collapsed lung), Donatas Motiejunas (likely out at least another week with lower back pain) and Kostas Papanikolaou (sprained right ankle), and that the Rockets have only just welcomed Dwight Howard back into the fold, operating with great caution in bringing their star center along in limited action (just 18.4 minutes per game in his first three outings) in hopes of keeping their paint protector fresh for the playoff push.
Losing Beverley, one of the league's most tenacious defenders at the point of attack, seems to serve as a destabilizing agent at a time when a Houston club currently fighting tooth-and-nail to secure the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference just needs to keep things steady. That said, the Rockets — now 50-23 after a Sunday matinee victory over the Washington Wizards, good enough for second place in the fairer conference — hardly seem bereft without their bulldog point man ... who, really, is Houston's point guard in name only.
As everybody knows, MVP off-guard James Harden is the Rockets' primary ball-handler and the man most responsible for creating Houston's offense. Among non-point guards, only Tyreke Evans and LeBron James (both of whom occupy similar leading creative roles for their teams) have averaged a higher time of possession than Harden, according to NBA.com's SportVU tracking data.
On the flip side, no other team's starting point guard has managed a lower in-game time of possession than Beverley's 3.9 minutes on the ball per game. Beverley has logged four more assists this season than small forward Trevor Ariza and right around the same number of dimes per 36 minutes as Josh Smith, and Kevin McHale's crew figures to be able to make up his 10.1 points per game without too much of a sweat by redistributing some of the 9.5 shots Beverley takes a game despite making just 38.3 percent of them. (Then again, Beverley's been a solid release valve on the kickouts created by Harden's penetration, knocking down 38.1 percent of his spot-up 3-point looks this season.)
The other end of the floor, though, is where Beverley's absence looms largest. He represented, without question, the Rockets' best chance of consistently and reliably short-circuiting opposing point men, operating as the tip of the spear in the Rockets' defense against the likes of potential Western opponents like Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis of the Dallas Mavericks, Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers or Stephen Curry of the league-leading Golden State Warriors. No other Houston point guard offers quite the same combination of quick hands and feet, nasty on-ball demeanor and experience in the defensive scheme that's propelled the Rockets to the fourth in the league in points allowed per possession this season.
It is perhaps worth noting, though, that in a roughly equal sample — 1,727 minutes with Beverley playing, 1,802 with him on the bench — Houston's defense has been about four points per 100 possessions stingier without Beverley than with him, and that the Rockets have outscored opponents by more than twice as much in non-Beverley minutes as when he plays. And this year's Rockets team, which has fought through injuries to key players all season long thanks in large part to a deep and versatile roster, does seem to have more options behind Beverley than past models.
Long-in-the-tooth veterans Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni certainly don't profile as stoppers, but Ariza and midseason acquisition Corey Brewer give McHale a pair of long-armed, quick and experienced wing defenders who can be deployed to give opposing point guards a different look. While you wouldn't necessarily expect McHale to feel comfortable giving high-leverage late-season minutes to a green freshman — just ask K.J. McDaniels — he could use these final couple of weeks to take a longer look at rookie Nick Johnson, who acquitted himself well defensively against Wizards All-Star John Wall in limited run on Sunday. And if there's ever a time for Harden to prove to all the doubters that he's truly committed to becoming the best all-around basketball player in the world this season, a two-way player worthy of hoisting the MVP trophy come this summer, well, there's no time like the present.
The Rockets have gone 15-2 in non-Beverley games this season, including a 9-0 mark with veteran shooter and combo guard Jason Terry taking Beverley's place in the starting lineup; JET's chipped in 11.9 points, 3.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 31.3 minutes per game in those nine starts, shooting a blistering 46.2 percent from 3-point land. The shuffled-up starting lineup the Rockets used Sunday — Harden and Terry in the backcourt, with Howard, Smith and Ariza up front — has performed well, but only in very small doses, outscoring the opposition by 10 points in 29 total minutes of floor time over the course of six games.
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That, really, might be the biggest issue facing Houston following Beverley's season-ending surgery — the relative lack of continuity left in the aftermath. All five of the Rockets' most frequently used lineups this season have featured Beverley; no five-man unit without him that features dudes still wearing a Rockets uniform (Tarik Black, we hardly knew ye) has logged more than 64 total minutes. While the reintroduction of Howard into the mix was expected to be Houston's main problem over the final couple of weeks heading into the playoffs, the Rockets instead find themselves having to establish a new normal rather than simply getting the members of their familiar (and very good) starting lineup reacquainted with one another.
Even so, with his team riding a heck of a hot streak despite all the injury woes — Houston's won seven of its last eight, nine of 12, and 14 of 20 since the All-Star break — general manager Daryl Morey thinks the Rockets have as good a chance as anyone of running the Western gauntlet, according to Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com:
"We think we can win the title with or without Beverley," Morey said on ESPN Radio's Basketball Insiders show. "Obviously it gets more challenging without Beverley; he's the key to our ability to guard a lot of these very good point guards in the West."
Morey said the Golden State Warriors, who own the NBA's best record and swept the season series against the Rockets this season, should be the favorites to win the title.
"We won't go in as the favorite," Morey said. "I think Golden State, deservedly so, gets to be called the favorite. They've had a very historic season. I think the Golden State training staff hasn't been talked about enough this year. That team has been healthy and really that showcased everyone in Golden State. Coach [Steve] Kerr has done a great job. We won't go in as the favorite. We do feel like we can beat anybody in a seven-game series, and we're pretty excited to get going with the playoffs."
The Rockets have the puncher's chance of Harden's scoring gifts (even though his particular set of skills might be minimized somewhat in the postseason) and hope of getting the rest of their wounded front court in full working order over the course of the next few weeks. Whether that's enough to overcome the loss of perhaps the toughest guy on their roster remains to be seen. For Houston to make it out of the postseason's opening round for the first time since 2009, it's going to have to be.
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