When the Houston Rockets faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers last Thursday, common knowledge of basketball marked this contest as an automatic dub for L.A.. Even with LeBron James’ absence due to an injured groin, the Lakers had an advantage with Anthony Davis taking the floor. He is arguably the league’s best big man and would be playing against a team who refuses to play anyone over 6’8”, so it appeared that Davis was poised for a Shaq-like performance.
Instead, it was the complete opposite.
By the time the final buzzer filled the walls of The Arena in Orlando, the Rockets’ micro-ball method had prevailed. Houston took a 113-97 win over the Lakers — led by James Harden who scored 39 points in the win.
Davis recorded a subpar double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds in the loss. His near seven-foot stature was irrelevant. Davis took eight shots and turned the ball over seven times in 30 minutes of play. Although the Rockets had a superb night on the offensive end, their performance on defense is what led to a 16-point victory.
“I think we did a pretty good job. I think we have been fighting and competing. Obviously, [with] their length, they are going to get a couple more offensive rebounds than we want. But I think with ball pressure and getting steals makes up for it.” — Harden
Prior to Tuesday’s loss against the Spurs, the Rockets had been one of the hottest teams in the league since the NBA restart, and defense has been their primary ingredient. What has stood out about Houston’s defensive performance has been their ability to limit the production of their opponents’ big men without a true center on the floor.
How have they managed to become so successful? Modern-day big men spend the majority of their time hanging outside of the restricted area, which plays into the hands of the Rockets. Their style of play has made it acceptable for Houston to either trap once the ball is placed on the floor or by forcing them into a low percentage shot.
This defensive possession against A.D. is the perfect example of how the Rockets have found success when defending a big.
In the video above, Davis received an entry pass with his back to the basket defended by Danuel House Jr. Once he places the ball on the floor, P.J. Tucker comes in from the weak-side to help set a trap to avoid an easy basket. This forces Davis into taking an ill-advised pass that luckily found its way into the hands of Kyle Kuzma, who converted a contested layup.
Despite the possession ending in a field goal for the Lakers, the Rockets succeeded by forcing Davis into getting rid of the ball. Davis’ pass could have easily resulted in a turnover with Harden and Austin Rivers lurking in the passing lane.
On occasions when the double team is not established, the Rockets’ one-on-one defense forced the opposing team’s big into settling for a difficult shot attempt. This normally happens when guarded by either Harden, Tucker, Robert Covington or Jeff Green — four of the their best post defenders.
In the clip above, it is easy to notice that Green’s defensive play forced Davis into taking an off-balance fade-away jumper. While this shot has become his bread and butter, Green didn’t give Davis much room to work with on this possession.
It is also worth mentioning that the Rockets’ perimeter defense also forced Davis into taking a rushed shot, given that he only had a few seconds to spare to avoid a shot-clock violation.
“I think our communication has gotten much better defensively. We have learned how to talk more, and also be in sync to know each other’s defensive tendencies. I think right now we are really starting to get better.” — Rivers
The Rockets limited Davis to only five made field goals on the night, but two of them came on an offensive rebound. Their inability to crash the boards and avoid second-chance points is the only downside when defending a big using their small-ball play.
Instead of establishing a dribble, all an opponent has to do is keep the ball high inside the paint when attempting to score. Without anyone to match their size, the Rockets will either foul or allow an easy layup attempt. But three points are worth more than two. So even on offense, the Rockets are still playing defense from a mathematical standpoint.
Houston’s defense against Davis was a continuation from their clutch defensive play on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and likely one of the reasons Kristaps Porzingis stated the Rockets are a “weird’ team to play.
The Rockets have put the phrase, “Defense Wins Championships” at the forefront of their quest to capture that elusive championship title — a slogan originally coined by legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. The last time we saw this much defensive focus from Houston, it was 2018 and they were a few bad calls and bum hammy away from the NBA Finals.
“That’s what is going to win us a championship, our defense on the defensive end. So laser focus is going to be what it takes, and I think each individual guy, the effort is there. And the team effort is there.” — James Harden