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Rockets have improved defensively, but one major flaw is holding them back

The Rockets have made some significant improvements to their defense, but one challenge is keeping them from reaching last year’s heights. And it’s likely about to get worse.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Following a disappointing showing against the Orlando Magic, the Houston Rockets rebounded and put on a remarkable performance in front of their home crowd with a 112-94 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, Monday night in the Toyota Center in Houston.

As always, James Harden led the Rockets to victory with another 30-plus night, recording a season-high 57 points in the win. While Harden continued his historic run against the Grizzlies, Houston’s defense played a huge factor in their victory.

The Rockets held Memphis to under 100 points, and their play on the defensive end was a testimony of the improvements Houston has made over the past month. It’s been a long road to get to this point, however.

Last season, while recording their best record in franchise history, the Rockets had one of the best defensive teams in the league. They held their opponent to 103.9 points per game, and possessed the seventh best defense with a defensive rating of 105.6.

Fast forward to today, and the Rockets’ tight defense has yet to transpire overall in the 2019 season. So much so, that the Rockets currently have the fifth-worst defense in the league. According to Advanced Stats, Houston has a defensive rating of 111.9 through their first 43 games of the season.

Their lack of results on the defensive end caused many to ponder whether or not their inability to get stops would cost Houston a playoff seeding come mid-April, especially after they hit rock-bottom during their 118-91 loss to the Utah Jazz back on December 6. They gave up a total of 70 points in the paint to the Jazz, without their all-star center Rudy Gobert, who was ejected within the first five minutes of the game.

However, after making a midseason change to their defensive plan by switching less, the Rockets’ defense over the past month has been far better.

Since defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in a 114-111 victory on December 11, Houston is the hottest team in the league. They’ve won 14 of their last 18 games, and are currently sitting fourth in the Western Conference with a 25-18 record.

While Harden deserves as much credit as possible for the Rockets midseason turnaround, the reigning MVP, who is averaging 40.6 points and 8.9 assists through the last 18 games, has not done it entirely alone. Houston’s improvements on defense have also played an important factor in the Rockets’ midseason turnaround.

From December 11 through January 14, the Rockets’ defense has skyrocketed into the top half of the league over that time frame with a defensive net rating of 110.2 per game.

While holding their opponents’ three-point shooting to a league-best 31.8 percent, Houston has given up an average of 108.4 points per game during the 18-game stretch. Through their first 13 games of the season, the Rockets gave up 113.0 points on 35.6 percent shooting from behind the arc.

In addition, the Rockets have also seen an improvement in second-chance points allowed, averaging only 12.6 during this stretch and have come along way from giving up 17.3 second-chance points at the start of the season. Just those slight improvements defensively combined with their still-elite Harden-led offense (Houston has the second-best offensive rating in the NBA), have spearheaded Houston’s turnaround from the bottom of the west to near the top.

Although Houston has made strides to improve their play, there are still a few defensive flaws the Rockets have yet to solve. Their ability to defend the paint has been their most significant Achilles’ heel.

Throughout the season, Houston has yet to find a way to keep their opponents from scoring on the inside, allowing 52.6 points in the paint. Through their 18-game resurgence, it seems as if the Rockets inside defense has regressed, giving up an average of 54.9 points per game.

However, the Rockets must find a way to defend the paint if they have any chance of winning a title this summer. Unfortunately, due to the absence of Clint Capela over the next several weeks, expect the Rockets’ defense on the inside to get worse before it can get better.

Whether Capela is playing or not, the Rockets should play with the same passion and intensity on defense they showcased against the Grizzlies. And not the subpar defensive performance they displayed in Sunday night’s loss against the Magic.

Effort goes a long way on that end of the court, and with two of their top defenders in Capela and Chris Paul currently in the trainer’s room rather than on the court, Houston’s going to need all the defensive effort they can get to tread water until the team is healthy once again.