I think it's fair to say the Houston Rockets have made an impression with most Knicks fans - even those too young to remember the '94 NBA Finals - over the past 14 months. First, Houston GM Daryl Morey drove a stake through the heart of Linsanity, with the help of a back-loaded poison pill contract and James Dolan's peculiar sense of loyalty*. Then, his Rockets quite simply beat the living piss out of the Knicks during the regular season, winning both games by an average of 20.5 points. The Rockets' 120.0 PPG average was more than 12 points higher than the second-highest-scoring Knicks opponent (Oklahoma City).
*(For the record: A free agent using a competing bidder to bargain for a better contract = disloyal; trading Patrick Ewing = loyal)
Nov. 23, 2012, @Houston: Rockets 131, Knicks 103
Dec. 17, 2012, @New York: Rockets 109, Knicks 96
Another ass-whuppin'. The Rockets were up by 23 in the fourth; the Knicks made the score respectable in garbage time.
What went wrong:
Checking back on the Three Factors of Knick Dominance:
1. Did the Rockets have guards who could decimate the Knicks off the dribble? YES!!!
2. Did the Rockets have any ex-Knicks? OH YES!!!
3. Did the Rockets have any players acquired with picks given up in the Eddy Curry trade? OK, I'm gonna have to go a little "Six Degrees of Eddy Curry" on this one. Omer Asik was drafted by Portland with pick acquired from the Knicks in a trade for Demetris Nichols, whom Portland had acquired in a trade with Chicago that also brought over LaMarcus Aldridge. How did the Bulls acquire Aldridge? They drafted him with the pick acquired from the Knicks for...EDDY CURRY!
Last season's Rockets team led the NBA in pace, and at first blush, it might have seemed as if the creaky, old Knicks simply couldn't compete with any team that pushed the ball. That simply wasn't true - according to 82games.com, New York had a 13-8 record against teams that ranked in the top ten in pace. Believe it or not, their winning percentage against the NBA's up-tempo teams (62%) was actually higher than their winning percentage against the ten slowest teams (17-13, 57%).
The Rockets didn't crush the Knicks because they pushed the ball; they won because they made a crap-load of threes and free throws. Houston averaged an embarrassing 12 made threes and 22 made free throws per game last season. Leading that parade, particularly from the charity stripe, was James Harden - perhaps the most devastating Knick opponent of last season outside of Stephen Curry. Harden averaged 30.5 points per game on .485 shooting (.455 from three). Worse, he racked up 25 free throw attempts in those two games, making 24. You won't win many games when you're giving up 12 points in free throws every game to just one dude.
Chandler Parsons was Houston's second-leading scorer, at 20.0 points a game, but trailing closely behind him at 17.5 PPG was a certain guy whose giant cardboard likeness made it too painful for me to eat at any Beijing KFC last season: Jeremy Lin. You could say that the two games against the Knicks were a microcosm for both player's seasons - Parsons was the better player, but the difference between the two wasn't nearly as pronounced as many believed. Check out their per-36-minute stats:
Parsons gets the nod because of the shooting percentages, but considering the narrative (Parsons had a breakout year, while Lin was a disappointment), these numbers look awful close.
What to expect next season:
The Rockets made arguably the biggest acquisition of the off-season by winning the Dwight Howard sweepstakes/post-modern shit circus. That should make them an even more difficult challenge for the Knicks, right? Whoa, whoa, whoa...slow down, Cochise.
First of all, it would pretty much impossible for the Rockets to play the Knicks better than they did last season - Dwight or no Dwight. In fact, there's is a chance that he might help the Knicks slow down the devastating Houston offense. Against the rest of the NBA, Dwight should prove a Godsend to the Houston perimeter players - drawing double teams that produce open looks. Fortunately for the Knicks, they can't possibly give up more open looks than they already do. If the Rockets continually pound the ball inside to Dwight, they would be playing into the hands of a foul-happy Knicks. Instead of sending Harden to the line 13 times per game (and watching him hit 12), they can spend some of those fouls on Dwight and his sub-fifty free throw percentage.
Screw it, I'm calling this right now...the Knicks are winning one of these games next season! I'm not quite sure how they'll do it, but they will! Go NY, go NY, go!