The Houston Rockets’ small-ball experiment has its benefits and in the NBA bubble, they’re a threat to any team in the Western Conference. But will their regular-season strengths ultimately be their undoing when the games count just a bit more?
The Houston Rockets‘ trajectory for the NBA’s restart plan has already gone awry, with Russell Westbrook succumbing to a positive COVID-19 test, Bruno Caboclo breaking bubble restrictions and Thabo Sefolosha opting out of the bubble entirely. Westbrook, of course, is the more impactful loss, and while he hopes to rejoin his teammates before action resumes, there’s no telling if he’ll be his usual self.
The Rockets have seen a noticeable improvement in their ball movement and spacing this season with Westbrook running the point rather than Chris Paul. Russ’s willingness to attack the hoop and even play off-ball when called upon rather than serve as a lead distributor opens up the floor, allowing the ball-dominant James Harden to impose his will on opposing defenses. In February alone, Westbrook led Houston to a 7-1 record, averaging 33.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6 assists per contest, while shooting near 55 percent from the field. That production cannot be replicated by anyone but Brodie.
Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have built a roster predicated on small-ball with efficient players who can contribute in more than one are. Robert Covington’s surprising rim protection has helped, but Tyson Chandler remains the only true center on the roster. Will that be enough against the West’s elite?
Houston occupies the sixth spot in the Western Conference playoff race and hold a 1.5 game advantage over the Dallas Mavericks for the seventh seed. They’re also just 2.5 games behind the third-seeded Denver Nuggets, so suffice to say every game remaining will count, and the Rockets have eight of them to improve their situation.
For the sake of this argument, we’ll assume that Westbrook returns in time for any playoff series. Should he not, the Rockets chances will deter significantly.
So how do you beat the Houston Rockets in a playoff series?
Beat them down inside: We had to start with the easiest option, right? Despite Houston’s ability to disguise this weakness in the regular season to a point, the fact remains that Tucker, Covington and Chandler cannot and will not pose a significant challenge to the likes of Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert…shall I continue?
The Rockets defend unlike any other team in the NBA. Post-ups are among the least efficient shots in modern basketball, and most big men employ either a legitimate jump shot, or are just too elite in most facets of the game to stop with any one player anyway. This is where the Rockets come in. Houston can switch 1-5, and isn’t afraid to employ guards and create a significant defensive mismatch for themselves. Against most teams out West, this strategy works, as they either don’t take advantage of it enough or the style of play doesn’t dictate a slow-moving, post-up centric game. It’s a rarity in today’s game to begin with.
However, the best of the West happen to employ some of the best back-to-the-basket centers the NBA has to offer. Davis and Jokic, just as an example, can take advantage of this flaw repeatedly, and when Houston finally caves and makes the necessary adjustments to stop it, both teams are balanced enough offensively to alter their strategy, especially the Lakers.
To use a switching scheme well, there cannot be breakdowns. The Rockets, unfortunately, have at least one misfit defensively, and his last name fittingly begins with ‘H’.
Harden’s ability on the other end of the floor more than makes up for the occasional defensive slip, but it points to how tough Houston’s defensive scheme is to replicate on a possession-by-possession basis, especially come playoff time. As fun as the Rockets’ experiment has been to watch so far, the best passing teams in the West — all of whom are among the top half of the conference standings — have the wherewithal to combat Houston’s pesky scheme over the course of a seven-game series.
Take advantage in transition: Even in the NBA postseason, where the action slows down considerably leading to far less fast break opportunities, a key to beating the Houston Rockets is to get out in transition. With the number of 3-point shots Houston is bound to take, which often result in long misses, any playoff game can turn into an up-and-down matchup with the Rockets unwilling and unable to adjust quickly enough to their fast-switching defense.
League-wide, teams make about 60 percent of their shots in the first five seconds of the shot clock. The Rockets gave up 17 percent of their shots in that time period, leaving them far more susceptible to higher-quality shots than most NBA teams.
The sheer number of Rockets fast-break buckets, and the fact their offense is inclined to run in transition for what should be a higher rate of conversion, leaves them open for an attack on the other end. Without a legitimate center, Houston could arguably benefit more from this style used against them, but the Rockets led the league in transition points against per game, at 24 per contest. That, quite simply, is not good enough, and teams with the bandwidth to push that narrative down Houston’s throat, such as the Lakers, who convert over 55 percent of their transition opportunities with an effective field goal percentage of 62.7, will be lurking.
D’Antoni is not known as a defensive mastermind, but unless this group — including Harden — is fully engaged from the opening jump to the final whistle, they’ll be exposed thanks to the system they so gracefully employ.
Hit the glass, hard: The Rockets’ tendency to run in transition has opposing teams fearful of devoting too many resources to attacking the glass. That’s a fair point, as there’s no team better equipped to reinforce that fear than Houston, who has the personnel and system in place to attack on the fast break early and often. However, as we’ve also learned, the Rockets lack traditional size.
Morey and D’Antoni are banking on the concept that their constant switching will entice teams to do the same, and keep smaller players on the floor to combat Houston’s offense. Instead, those at the top of the Western Conference ought to have an offensive viewpoint. More offensive rebounds lead to more baskets and fewer transition opportunities. YTams that thrive on offensive rebounding, such as the Clippers, Lakers, Mavericks and Nuggets, all serve as potential first-round match-ups with Houston.
Sometimes a playoff series can come down to something as simple as my team is bigger than yours, and while the Rockets small-ball strategy has increased their points-per-possession, it hasn’t masked one of the major flaws in their eventual loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2019. Kevon Looney, of all bigs, saw a huge uptick in his offensive rebound numbers against Houston. This was when Clint Capela was still employed by Houston. In 2019-20, the numbers don’t suggest the Rockets fully learned their lesson.
Docking Houston points for their lack of rebounding against the Warriors dynasty may not be fair, but LeBron’s Lakers and the like aren’t built in the ‘old mold’ Morey and D’Antoni would like us to believe they are. Every franchise has adapted, and while the Rockets make for an amazing basketball analytics case study, they’ll have to overcome some obvious physical flaws, and now roster chemistry, to prove management correct.