Without James Harden, Houston Rockets Cannot Afford Their Typical Lax Defense

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2013

Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones must step up their defensive efforts even more when James Harden cannot play.
Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones must step up their defensive efforts even more when James Harden cannot play.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

When the Houston Rockets are rolling on the offensive side of the floor, the team's obvious defensive weaknesses can be overcome.

But when Kevin McHale's squad is failing to create transition opportunities, the Rockets are forced to play their opponent's style—something Houston is ill-prepared to do.

Especially without its superstar, James Harden.

His absence certainly doesn't help, but the lack of transition hurts even more. Although the team has proven it can be competitive without Harden, Houston's success has been defined by a strong defensive effort.

The Rockets love to push the ball up the floor, utilizing an uptempo style of play. Typically, the break is led by Harden. The swingman has excellent speed, vision and finishing skills, but he is resting a sore foot that has nagged him since training camp.

The fifth-year shooting guard has missed three games to date, including Monday's 93-86 win over the Memphis Grizzlies

Instead of running the fast break, however, Houston was primarily in half-court offensive sets throughout the first half against the Grizz. Point guard Jeremy Lin was the primary ball-handler, and Patrick Beverly occasionally took over the reins.

But a slow-paced attack is not the Rockets' forte.

Collectively, Houston repeatedly put itself in poor offensive scenarios, mostly due to a lack of team defense.

Memphis was without starting center Marc Gasol, who is out indefinitely due to a knee injury, but the Grizzlies snagged 11 offensive rebounds during the first half. Kosta Koufos—Gasol's replacement—accounted for six of the 11 boards.

The worst part, however, Memphis entered the game averaging 10.2 offensive rebounds per game

Compared to the Rockets' 13 defensive rebounds, it was clear which team was more aggressive on the glass throughout the first 24 minutes.

Additionally, the Rockets only managed three blocks and two steals, so transition opportunities were few and far between.

Houston was forced to run its half-court offense, and it turned into a showcase of bad three-point attempts, eight fast-break points and a 32-point first half.

But the Rockets made an adjustment second half, attacking the glass and boxing out the Grizzlies' big men. Memphis managed just three offensive rebounds during the second half, and Omer Asik's seven boards helped Houston limit the number of easy shots.

Consequently, the Grizzlies only attempted 32 shots in the second half because of the tightened defensive effort, which included five steals and two blocks. The Rockets created more transition opportunities for themselves, scoring 34 points in the paintmany of which followed those positive defensive plays.

Although Harden was sidelined and Dwight Howard did not see the floor during the fourth quarter, Houston earned the win because of a 61-point second half.

After the game, McHale said, "We just kept on trying to find a lineup that would really click. And that last lineup we had there did a great job" (h/t ESPN).

Earlier this season, the Rockets squared off with the Philadelphia 76ers sans Harden. Overpowered by Tony Wroten's completely unexpected triple-double, Houston fell to the Sixers, but it was not because of a poor offensive effort.

Remember, despite the addition of perennial NBA All-Defensive Team honoree Dwight Howard, the Rockets are a below-average defensive squad.

As a team, Houston grabbed 50 total rebounds and dished an impressive 34 assists against the 76ers, and Jeremy Lin connected on 9-of-15 three-point attempts. Five other Rockets reached the double-digit scoring mark, and Houston shot 44.8 percent from the field.

One of the biggest reasons Philadelphia won that game, though, is it outscored the Rockets 27-10 in the fast break category. Houston's defense was not stout enough to even contain Wroten, James Anderson and Evan Turner. When the Rockets cannot make stops, an offense less Harden is simply too much to fight through.

However, the team has proven it can step up.

Before taking down Memphis, the Rockets defeated the Minnesota TimberwolvesHouston was able to move quickly up the floor as the team tallied 26 assists, shot 51.9 percent from the field and overcame 23 turnovers.

Most importantly, the Rockets outrebounded Minnesota 54-44, including 43 boards on the defensive glass. The club also swatted nine shots and grabbed six steals. Harden may have been in street clothes, but the team's ability to make timely stops propelled Houston to a win Saturday.

When Harden is at full strength, a powerful offensive attack along with an improved defense would make the Rockets a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

And not just a one-dimensional team that lives and dies by its defense—or lack thereof.


Follow Bleacher Report NBA Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: Kenyon19_BR.