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The Rockets are back to playing good defense

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A tuning of personnel, a rediscovery of effort, and an increased emphasis on communication has made all the difference for the Rockets’ defense.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When we last checked in on the Rockets’ defense, things weren’t exactly rosy. The team ranked last in the league half-court defense, bottom ten in defensive rating, and bottom five in virtually all hustle metrics. However, since that dreadful 1-5 start, the Rockets have allowed a stingy 94.9 points per game, good for best in the league by six total points. So what’s changed?

Let’s take a look:

Personnel

While it’s an easy narrative to point to Carmelo Anthony’s replacement with superior defenders as the primary reason for the improvement, it’s unfortunately a correct one.

Although Anthony isn’t entirely to blame, as the Rockets strung together multiple solid defensive efforts with him still in the lineup, the fact of the matter is the team’s defense performed 10 points better with him off the floor. He should be commended for consistently giving effort, but the switch-heavy scheme the Rockets employ simply wasn’t the proper fit for his waning athleticism and instincts. Hopefully wherever he ends up runs a scheme more suited to his skillset.

Substituting Anthony for the now-healthy James Ennis and two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year Gary Clark has made a world of difference. There’s no longer an easily identifiable weak link for opponents to attack in the half court.

Since returning, Ennis has been his usual self, grading out solid in every defensive metric despite drawing the toughest assignment each night. And Clark has proved his surprise inclusion in the rotation is no accident, using his length and intuition to smother ball handlers in the pick-and-roll and bother shooters on the perimeter.

Additionally, some of the new faces are beginning to develop a comfort level with the switch-everything scheme. Something Mike D’Antoni pointed out following practice yesterday:

In particular, Isaiah Hartenstein is finally starting to look the part of a prototypical Rockets big man, competently switching onto guards and wings alike. The 0.733 points per possession (PPP) he’s currently surrendering in isolation is exceptional for a relatively-immobile seven-footer, and far outpaces his measuring stick- Clint Capela’s mark- in that same category (although Capela has faced twice the possessions).

Effort

As mentioned earlier, during their dreadful beginning to the year, the Rockets’ aloofness saw them start the year bottom five in virtually every hustle metric NBA.com tracks. While there is still much work to be done (they remain horrific in boxouts and shots contested per game), there’s certainly been progress.

Specifically, the team has jumped to the top half of the league in loose balls recovered and to the top seven in deflections. It’s clear the reality check of a 1-5 start gave the team’s collective ego the kick-in-the-rear-end it needed.

Communication

As D’Antoni mentioned, the Rockets’ are executing their unique defensive scheme far better with each passing game because the new players are becoming more familiar with it. That familiarity has bred an increase in communication level that has them resembling last year’s Rockets far more than the decrepit iteration that began the year.

That heightened communication has coincided with a noticeable jump from last in the league defending cutting plays through six games to the middle of the pack currently. Plays where opposing off-ball players waltz into the lane undeterred for a layup while two Rockets wrongly scramble to a different opponent due to a miscue are becoming rarer with each passing game.

This awareness of cutters and an increased emphasis on communicating in transition defense (they’re currently allowing the third-least fast break points in the league) is the primary reason they’ve risen from last in points allowed in the paint to a somewhat-more-respectable 19.

It’s unclear how sustainable this all is. Just like we pleaded patience when the Rockets started off poorly, this revival has only been for the last week and a half. We’ll need to see it over an extended period before declaring the defense permanently fixed. But for now, it seems like the Rockets are back (well, defensively at least).

We’ll be watching for it to continue tonight against Sacramento.