Will Houston Rockets' Defense Be Their Undoing in 2013 Playoffs?
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Conventional wisdom says defense wins championships.
Common sense dictates that the team who scores the most points wins.
For the 2012-13 Houston Rockets, if the latter line of thinking holds sway, the playoffs might well bring extended success. If, however, the former prevails…well, for lack of a less-overused cliché: Houston, we got problems.
Statistically, the Rockets are 19th in the league in defensive efficiency. That doesn't sound so bad until you consider that no playoff-bound team in the league has a lower rating—even though five teams have lower winning percentages. Only in the event the Utah Jazz overtake the Los Angeles Lakers will a team less efficient defensively make the postseason.
From there, the statistical news only gets worse: The Rockets are 22nd in the league in opponents' true shooting percentage, 25th in defensive plays rate, 28th in opponent points allowed and block rate and dead last in defensive rebounding rate.
The only defensive categories in which the Rockets are above average are opponents' percent of field goals assisted (they're ninth) and opponents' assist rate (they're 11th). Unfortunately, this is more likely due to the high number of uncontested shots the Rockets let slide right by them than it is to stout defense.
This is not an article about what to fix defensively. For one, it's far too late in the season, and for another, the Rockets are simply an unusually young team. Except for recently acquired backups Francisco Garcia (whose minutes will decline come playoff time) and Aaron Brooks, the Rockets' elder statesmen are Carlos Delfino, 30, and Omer Asik, 26.
Every other player on the roster is 24 or younger.
Why does age matter? Because it's a well-known adage that young NBA teams, virtually without exception, play poor defense.
But take a look at this study. Though it confirms the youth-to-poor-defense adage, it also indicates that young teams will generally not have an effective offense as well. With the Rockets, though, we know that that is far from the case: The squad is first in pace, second in points scored and sixth in offensive efficiency.
So now we go back to the original question: Can this squad make up for their defensive deficiencies by simply pouring on the points?
I say yes.
Here's why. Citing Andy Hu's excellent statistical breakdown of the Rocket's potential first-round matchups, here's what we see, knowing now that the Rockets are most likely to face either the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Nuggets or the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
The Spurs are 25th in the league in allowing fast-break points to their opponents. The Rockets, by contrast, are second in the league in fast-break points. In other words, it's an irresistible force—the Rockets' transition offense—versus a very movable object—the Spurs' transition defense. The Spurs could easily act as Rocket fuel on Houston's way to a first-round upset.
The Nuggets are 29th in the league in allowing three-point shots to their opponents. The Rockets, by contrast, are first in the league in three-point field-goal attempts, second in three-point field goals made and ninth in three-point field-goal percentage.
Again, it's a recipe for the Rockets to work that scoreboard like it's a Labor Day telethon tote board.
The Thunder are 12th in the league in points allowed in the paint. The Rockets, with James Harden and Jeremy Lin's lane-driving leading the way, are third in the league in points scored in the paint. To be sure, it's the smallest advantage of the three for the Rockets statistically, but still favorable circumstances for the Rockets to pull off an upset.
The other good news is, no matter which of the three aforementioned teams they face, should the Rockets pull off the first-round upset while the rest of the seedings hold true, they'll face the other previously mentioned team in the second round.
Of the three possible opponents, there is no question in my mind the Nuggets are the toughest matchup for Houston, simply because they play such a similar style of offense, which means Houston's defense—sorry, I mean lack thereof—gets exposed.
Yes, the Rockets will not have to face Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets' best outside shooter, who went down with a torn ACL on April 4. But Wilson Chandler has stepped in for Gallinari and performed admirably, so the Nuggets will be no easier of an out than they were before the Gallinari injury.
There's also case precedent for a potent NBA offense superceding a lack of defense. The Rockets this year are somewhat reminiscent of the Denver Nuggets of the 1980s, who featured a run-and-gun offense the likes of which the league had never seen, and—the Mike D'Antoni Phoenix Suns included—has never seen again.
The team, who was involved in the highest-scoring NBA game ever (which I watched live with a dropped jaw as a youth), was categorically bereft of defense. But they didn't care: The team simply ran opponents out of the arena and, in the process, made the playoffs every year except coach Doug Moe's first.
The results: This squad, with its high-octane offense and non-existent defense, lost in the first round five times. They also lost in the conference semifinals three times and in the conference finals once. In other words, four times out of nine, they advanced past the first round.
The moral of the story? Victory in the playoffs with slipshod defense can be had if the offense is good enough. Houston's offense is. Further, the Rockets' opposition is flawed defensively in the very areas where Houston's offense excels.
Put it this way: If you like defensive matchups, opt for the Los Angeles Clippers-Memphis Grizzlies series. Because what you're going to see in the Rockets' playoff games, pure and simple, are a whole lotta points scored.
But don't be at all surprised if when the final buzzer sounds, Houston has scored more of them.
All advanced stats courtesy of hoopdata.com
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