We all know the cliche’: Defense wins championships. But cliche’s become that way because there’s such an element of truth to them, and that’s no different for this one.
The last time we saw the Houston Rockets playing lockdown defense, they went all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2018, where a confluence of terrible officiating, an injured hamstring, and some anomalously poor shooting at the worst time led to a seven-game defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
But the Rockets were sixth overall in defensive rating that season, and the complete development of their switching scheme was on full display despite the loss.
They’ve spent the last two years looking to get back to the tenacity and communication that almost took them to the promised land, and despite finishing this season a middle-of-the-pack 14th in defensive rating, they started cranking up the intensity once the bubble games resumed, and they’ve been totally locked in since the start of their first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They’re currently holding the Thunder to an average of 103 points per game in the series, which is a full seven points less than their season average. The Thunder are shooting 44.2 percent through the first two games, also a pretty significant drop from their season average of 46.8 percent.
But it’s not even so much as what they Rockets are doing, but how they’re doing it. The defensive intensity appears frenetic, yet completely controlled. Check out this sequence from the fourth quarter of last night’s game, where they totally shut down everything. Put on the clamps.
The Rockets defense has been stifling, this is an amazing possession here. Look at the work from PJ Tucker, he jumps in the lane early for help which allows to get out quickly. Granted you aren't going to worry about Dort from three but he closes pretty well anyways. pic.twitter.com/DfyBpaWC6k— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) August 20, 2020
And it was like that for the majority of the second half last night. After scoring 59 points before the break, the Thunder put up just 39 in the second half, as the Rockets fully committed to cranking up the defensive heat, which was more than enough to offset poor shooting nights from both James Harden (31% on the night from the field) and Eric Gordon (30%).
P.J. Tucker: "We always talk about trying to hold people to 24 points or under in a quarter. We did that twice in the second half. That gives our offense a chance to win." #Rockets— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) August 20, 2020
In fact, Houston’s defense was so energetic and so tight on their rotations that it was hard to discern at times if they were playing a man scheme or zone.
Coach D'Antoni on the defense: "A lot of people thought we were in a zone, but our [man-to-man defense] was looking like a zone the way we switched and the way we plugged up the driving lanes."— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) August 20, 2020
Probably the most amazing part of this defensive renaissance is that Houston’s eight-man rotation (nine when Russ gets back) isn’t filled with guys that have amazing defensive reputations, outside of P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington. In fact, the other guys that do have reps as stoppers — DeMarre Carroll, Luc Mbah a Moute — can’t even get on the floor.
So while Tucker and RoCo are leading the charge, a lot of this is being done by James Harden, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and Ben McLemore. It’s a total team effort, and guys have bought in.
In particular, the Rockets have cranked up the heat in the fourth quarter, getting stops when they matter most, which is something we’ve noticed especially since the bubble reconvened. It was on full display in last night’s win as well.
It’s been just two games, and the Rockets have a long road ahead of them before we start talking title. They need 14 more wins before they can bring back that ring. But with the team focused like this, the sky is certainly the limit.
We all know about Houston’s offense. They can score with the best of them, even with Russell Westbrook on the sidelines. They even proved they can score with The Beard underperforming, as they still put up 111 with Harden scoring 13 points lower than his season average. Their skills on that end are certainly no secret.
But if they can keep up this defensive intensity — which almost feels is a result of the PocketRockets philosophy, i.e. they know they must bring maximum effort all the time without the size to back them up — the rest of the NBA should officially be on notice. Yes, even in L.A.