Much of the fanfare surrounding the Rockets’ recent 8-1 stretch has focused on James Harden’s scorching 39 points-per-game, but arguably the main reason the Rockets have turned things around is their increased emphasis on rebounding.
In the past nine games, the Rockets have outrebounded their opponent in all but one, with the lone exception being their nail-biter loss in Miami where they were beaten on the boards 61-41. Considering the Rockets’ are 13-3 in games this season where they win the rebounding battle, it’s fair to say their play mirrors the glass.
This season, the Rockets have surrendered seven more second-chance points in losses than they have in wins. Seven extra points may not seem like the end-all-be-all, but consider the points the Rockets lose out on by giving away those possessions on offensive rebounds.
Because of the Rockets’ explosive offense, outrebounding their opponent is especially important, as their tendency towards shooting threes creates more opportunities for scoring during those lost possessions than virtually any other team.
So what is behind their recent jump from 29th in defensive rebounding percentage before this recent nine-game stretch to the middle of the pack during it?
Well, as simple as it may seem, one reason is simply having better rebounders on the floor. With Daniel House Jr. and Gary Clark stepping in for the injured and rebound-averse James Ennis, and veteran Nene Hilario replacing gangly rookie Isaiah Hartenstein, rebounding as a team has never been easier. Those marginal improvements on the periphery of the roster raking in a couple of contested rebounds can make all the difference for a team that’s consistently in close games.
Furthermore, head coach Mike D’Antoni has made a schematic adjustment with the previously underperforming Clint Capela, avoiding switching him onto guards in pick-and-roll to keep him near the rim. As the Athletic’s Alykhan Bijani outlined recently on Twitter, this has coincided with a significant increase in boxouts per game for Capela, allowing him to get back to swallowing rebounds at a rate similar to last season.
Big reason for 7-1 #Rockets stretch has been schematic change of dropping the Big back in coverage more. Houston is mixing up coverages. Teams knew Big switch was coming. Now, Capela + teammates call out mixed coverages. Rivers plays empty side, Capela back (with weak-side help). pic.twitter.com/Ur9FOGyey0— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) December 26, 2018
However, while this recent stretch has quieted many concerns about the Rockets’ deficiencies, they certainly aren’t all the way back yet. Even after the promising nine-game sample, the team still ranks bottom five in rebounds per game after a respectable finish last season with a similarly undersized roster. If the Rockets’ want to sustain success in the way they’ve become accustomed to in recent years, they’ll need to continue their recent collective approach on the glass.
Luckily for Rockets’ fans, the team is acutely aware of their fatal flaw. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigan, D’Antoni stressed the importance of their effort on the glass, saying “the one constant stat is when we rebound the ball well defensively, we’re a tough out.”
During the nine-game stretch, the Rockets rank in the top six for boxouts per game after beginning the year in the bottom five. Hustle plays have become commonplace again. If the Rockets can stay in the upper echelon in boxouts and other rebounding metrics, they’ll be able to continue their winning ways without having to rely on a nightly supernova from their MVP.