The Houston Rockets are on a roll, but everyone around the league knows the weakness that will eventually end their streak. It’s their perimeter defense.
Dwight Howard was brought to Houston to shore up the team’s stoppers. But on the defensive end, Howard was merely an upgrade on the already-elite Omer Asik at defending the rim, and he can only do so much to help the team prevent backcourt and wing players from running amok against the Rockets.
Just how bad has their perimeter defense been?
Statistics tell only part of the story, as the Rockets giving up a staggering 102.7 points per game has a lot to do with averaging 109.4 per game themselves—their scoring (keyed by their fast break, as their transition efficiency is third in the league) gives them quite a bit of leeway defensively. They also lead the league in turnovers, giving the ball up 18.5 times a contest—this leads to many easy baskets for the opposition.
So while both the Rockets’ offensive productivity and their careless handle of the ball inflate the numerical image of their perimeter defense, their work has still not been good enough. If this team is to carry its impressive play into something more serious come spring time, it’ll have to be more stern in stopping any number of the Western Conference’s elite point guards and wings outside of the paint.
Thus far, Patrick Beverley has been the Rockets’ only heavy-usage perimeter defender who’s been especially reliable.
James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons are still shaking out of the mind-set from last year’s campaign, which had them thinking too much about taking gambles on steals for go-go transition opportunities. Maybe the three can take turns as designated steal-hawks, instead of sacrificing their coverage in unison.
Communication is key.
Hunkering down into half-court denial is what will take this team to the next level. As Houston rolls into a new identity with its latest streak, it’s unclear whether such a transformation is possible with the current roster or if help will need to come in the form of a trade—it’s only a matter of time until the right offer for the unhappy Asik is made.
In either event, it’s essential that the squad realizes the ceiling to the style of play that broke them through the rust of their franchise in last year’s thrilling season. Running—and running up the score—has a very finite value in the NBA playoffs, where smart, experienced and well-disciplined teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are sure to take such firepower away.
Certainly, some of Houston’s lackluster defense results from its emphasis on its offensive style. It seems almost as if the group is insecure about the change into more of a half-court team, despite having more than enough requisite talent to get baskets in less free of a fashion.
Between Harden, Howard, Parsons, Lin and the rapidly emerging Terrence Jones, this is a team that need not rely on the flotsam of the open court to get the bulk of its baskets.
In the feisty Western Conference, the Rockets are not the only poor defensive team that stands as a playoff contender. Count the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers (allowing 102.9 and 101.6 points per game, respectively) among them. The common trait between all of these teams is that they score in bunches on easy open-court opportunities.
Winning in such a way always carries ample fool’s gold. The Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns are the greatest testament to this truth. Those teams plowed through their enemies in the regular season but never could break through to the NBA Finals. The closest they came was actually in 2010, once Alvin Gentry had replaced Mike D’Antoni as their head coach and given them a little more half-court focus.
The Rockets need to learn their lesson more quickly than Nash and the Suns did. Coach Kevin McHale, above all, is responsible for imparting the tenets of the chess game that is half-court basketball to his young squad. The track meet of the open court ends in April, and the Rockets will need to have tighter spaces figured out by then to keep winning.