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Rockets winning games with defense first

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Before the season, this looked like an offensive-first squad, but 18 games in and it’s Houston’s defense that’s leading the way.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

When head coach Stephen Silas was brought aboard in the offseason, he was mostly touted for his offense. Regarded as a sort of guard whisperer, similar to Mike D’Antoni, he helped spring Luka Doncic to superstardom with the Dallas Mavericks. When he was named new coach of the Houston Rockets, the team sported two of the most dynamic guards in the game in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

And while the trajectory of Houston’s season took an abrupt detour when both stars were traded, most of us were looking forward to some creative offensive basketball coming from the mind of Silas, which would be a welcome respite from watching a team that initially, no one really expected to win many games sans-Beard. There was even some fan talk of tanking immediately after the Harden deal.

But another unexpected detour has now hit in this most intriguing of seasons: the Rockets have become a defense-first team, and because of it, they’re right in the thick of the playoff race.

Houston is currently tied for third in the NBA with a 106.9 defensive rating according to Basketball Reference. If you squash that down to the nine games the Rockets have played since the James Harden trade, it stands at a sparkling 102.8, and Houston has gone 6-3 in those games, including the current five-game win streak, turning around a season that was in danger of going south after The Beard was dealt. Their defensive rating during the win streak has jumped all the way to 100, good enough for tops in the NBA over that time frame. Yes, tops. First.

Earlier in the month, however, Houston was struggling a bit on defense, lacking cohesion and adequate communication with a bunch of new pieces still getting acclimated without a lot of practice time. It was a point of emphasis for Silas.

The team was struggling with when to switch and when to incorporate their new base drop defense, which is only something that comes with time. It was no shock when Houston came out of the gates this season a little lackluster on defense (an out-of-shape, disinterested Harden didn’t help either). But what has been a bit of a surprise is how quickly they’ve gotten in synch with one another.

Houston has gone from a switch-everything team to a squad that’s flowing between the two as the in-game situations change. Silas says that’s a reaction to his team’s personnel.

We’re watching Houston’s defense mature right before our very eyes, becoming a virtual extension of Silas’s basketball brain on the court. After holding the Washington Wizards to a season-best 88 points on 39 percent shooting on January 26, they followed that up by holding the Portland Trail Blazers to just 101 points on 41 percent shooting two nights later. We’re seeing what it looks like with the defense incorporating everything. Silas said after the game:

“We did a little bit of everything tonight. We were in our drop, we were in blitzes, we switched. We did a little bit of everything cause they’re so hard to guard.”

The reason Houston’s been able to apply Silas’s principles so quickly is that this team is filled with high basketball IQ guys like P.J. Tucker and Jae’Sean Tate, who exemplify being in the right place at the right time. They always seem to know what play to make and when to make it, as both carry a positive defensive box plus-minus and average nearly a steal and a block per game apiece.

The blazing fast David Nwaba leads an athletic bench group that puts pressure on the opposition defensively, as he leads the team in steals (1.2) and is second in defensive box-plus minus (+1.7), while also landing in the top 30 overall in the NBA in defensive RPM (+1.42). Even Sterling Brown has been better than expected defensively with that second unit, picking up one steal per game and standing squarely in the positive on defensive box (+1.0).

But one of the biggest reasons for Houston’s defensive explosion is the rapid improvement of Christian Wood. After a slow start to the year in which he looked a little lost defensively, Wood has really come on of late. In fact, he now stands at 23rd overall in the entire NBA in defensive RPM (+1.68), while averaging 1.6 blocks and almost a steal per night.

He still has his lapses, and he’s certainly nowhere near as polished defensively as he is offensively, but like with most of this team, we’re watching Wood literally get better every game, and boy, is that a fun feeling or what?

Even DeMarcus Cousins, despite losing a ton of lateral quickness, has played better of later on defense, while Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, and John Wall are all underrated on that end of the court and are capable of making huge plays, and Danuel House, as he gets healthier, can be solid defensively as well.

With this recent defensive surge, Houston is near the top in many defensive statistics. In addition to that shiny defensive rating we mentioned earlier, they’re sixth overall in opponent’s field goal percentage (44.8 percent) and fourth overall in opponent’s effective field goal percentage (51.2). They’re fourth overall in the league in blocks (114), fifth in opponent’s three-point percentage (35 percent) and ninth in points against (109.6).

And all of that is season-long, meaning it includes the defensive stumble out of the gates. The defensive arrow right now is clearly pointing upward. During the five-game streak, Houston holds the second-best net rating in the entire NBA.

With the defense currently playing elite (yes, they’ve been elite over the last two weeks), Victor Oladipo getting more acclimated, guys like Tate, Nwaba, and Brown coming into their own, vets like Cousins and Tucker providing mentoring and presence, and it all held together by a budding star in Wood and a fiery floor general in Wall, the Rockets just might surprise a few people by season’s end.