The Rockets' defense has been bad this year, ranking near the bottom of the league in points per game and defensive field goal percentage for the vast majority of the season. But we've been over this before. I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know.
What has been a new development, however, is that in the month of March, that defense is actually improving. And not only has it just improved in March, it's actually been one of the best defenses in the league.
Through the end of February, the Rockets were giving up 107.1 point per game to opposing offenses, which was 27th in the league in that time frame, and their opponents' field goal percentage was equally atrocious. The enemy shot a combined 46.6 percent from the field, good for 26th in the NBA.
Since the start of March, however, it's been a completely different story. The Rockets are giving up just 102.8 points per game in their 7 games this month, which is good for 10th in the NBA over that period. And that includes a 125-point meltdown against the Charlotte Hornets back on March 12th. Take that game out of the equation, and the Rockets are giving up only 98.8 points per game in the month.
Their opponents' field goal percentage has also plummeted, as the opposition are shooting just 41.8 percent against the Rockets in March, good for 2nd overall in the league. Combine that with a team defensive rating that's gone from a 26th-place 106.6 to a third-place 101.7 in March, and you have the makings of a team finally clamping down on teams in a way we expected them to going into this season.
The result has been better overall play and a 5-2 record since March 1st that has gotten the team right back into the thick of the playoff race. The Rockets now stand just a half game back of the 6th-place Portland Trail Blazers and 5 games back of the 5th-seeded and imploding Memphis Grizzlies.
So what's the reason for the sudden turnaround?
First and foremost, coach J.B. Bickerstaff is pointing to an increased amount of forced turnovers, as he told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen:
"Defensively, we've been flying around, being active, causing havoc, getting a lot of turnovers, getting a lot of deflections. That helps our break. The consistency on that end of the floor will make us a completely different team."
The numbers back up Bickerstaff's assertation, as the Rockets are snagging a league-best 18.7 turnovers per game in the month of March. They're converting those turnovers into an average of 20.9 points per game, good for third best in the NBA in that time frame.
James Harden has also stepped up his defensive play. In a testament to how much having your best player buy into nightly effort has a trickle effect across the entire lineup, Harden has a defensive rating of 97.6 for the month of March, by far his best stretch of defensive ball of the season, not coincidentally coinciding with the whole team's best stretch of defensive ball.
The improved play of the front line is also making a difference as well, with Dwight Howard averaging 1.9 blocks per game in March, good for his best month of blocks on the year, and also with the rearrangement of the power forward rotation.
The ineffective Terrence Jones and Josh Smith have both been glued to the pine in favor of a finally healthy Donatas Motiejunas, with newcomer Michael Beasley and rookie Montrezl Harrell providing a spark off the bench. And while Beasley and D-Mo aren't exactly known for being defensive stalwarts, their enthusiasm and Harrell's nightly hustle have been a big step up from the often-sleepwalking Jones and the fast-declining Smith.
With things fitting together so smoothly right now, there's only one thing left to do, and that's to keep it rolling over these last few weeks of the season. If the Rockets keep up the stellar play, particularly on the defensive end, snagging the 5th seed down the stretch can be within reach, as Harden told Feigen:
"We control our own destiny. Every game, we have to take advantage. Just rack up as many games as we can. We have 15 games left. We have to take advantage."