Hero Ball devoured the Rockets

James Harden and the RocketsNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Late in close games, including against the Lakers on Wednesday, the Rocket offense stagnates.

The Rockets had a shot against the banged up Spurs. That's the thinking.

But there's no worse West draw than opening on the road in Loud City.

To avoid that all the Rockets merely had to muster one more win. It could have been in Wednesday's overtime loss to the Lakers, Monday's loss to the Suns or last Friday's loss to the Grizzlies. For that matter there have also been close losses to the Suns (again), Mavericks, Bucks and Wizards in recent weeks. A good showing in any of those, and the Rockets would be perched much more happily in the seventh seed.

What galls Rockets blogger Rahat Huq of Red94 is that it has all been so predictable. Of course the Rockets would crumble late against the Lakers.

NBA.com's advanced stats tool says that this season in the final minute of games within five points, the Rockets shoot worse than 30 percent from the floor -- despite having one of the league's best offenses generally.

Close games have been this team's kryptonite, Huq says, for a very specific reason:

The Rockets choking in the clutch is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it just the other day. Their league-leading offense shrinks to one of the worst in basketball in late-game situations. So this is a problem you saw coming. Why it became so tough to stomach was because of the stakes and the stage, and a duration which felt like an eternity.

As is pretty much the case anytime the Rockets are involved in a close game in the fourth quarter, the team completely abandoned its pick and roll offense, resorting to the dreaded “hero-ball spread.” For those who have been living in a cave this is a set where, essentially, James Harden holds the ball at the top of the key while the other four players spread out of the way. Harden then dribbles the ball for about 20 seconds and chucks up some variation of a contested jumper, whether it be from straightaway 3 or of the stepback variety within 2-point range.

Hero Ball, or isolating your best player with the ball and letting him create for himself, is one of those things that looks dumber with time. Not long ago there was no way to know if it was the best approach or not. Increasingly, though, the evidence is making clear it's far better to attack the defense at its weakest. (Hero Ball does the opposite.)

So, why are the Rockets, such a smart team, using this approach?

Huq would like to find out:

When a team gets blown out, its on the players. When they lose close games, especially in the exact same manner every time, that’s on the coaching. Whether ISOball is the call from the bench, or Harden is going off cue is a subject for later debate, but there is simply no justification for some of the completely unimaginative plays the Rockets have run out of timeouts.

Throw a wrinkle in here and there. Instead of four guys watching Harden, how about three guys watching Harden while one guy bends over to tie his shoes! I don’t know … do something to vary it. There is literally no excuse for the game to end last night, on a critical possession, with Jeremy Lin chucking a desperation 3-pointer after Harden dribbled away 20 seconds from the shot clock. None.