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Bubble Science: Game #1 Breakdown

We're back! In the most Houston win I can imagine, the Rockets pulled something out of their ass and overcame a 7-point deficit with just 45 seconds left to beat the Mavs in overtime. One down, seven to go. With the final score an eye-popping 153-149, the offense was humming, but the defense was abysmal. What else is new? It's been nearly 24 hours of basking in the highlights, but now it's time to breakdown what went wrong on the defensive end of the court.


The first thing to say is that despite giving up 42 points in the first quarter, Houston defended pretty well out of the traps. Dallas didn't get a lot of easy looks early on, they just made tough shots like these.


But things soon unravelled for Houston. At the start of the 2nd, with Harden on the bench, Boban Marjanović was a significant factor in grabbing rebounds and creating second chance points for Dallas. After that, Luka started attacking the teeth of the defense and the Rockets defenders were completely lost in their help positions. Possession after possession Dončić drove inside and kicked out to a wide open shooter.


This was one of Houston's worst defensive possessions of the entire game. Luka goes around the screen and has Tucker in front of him, with Westbrook on his shoulder. It's a conventional pick n roll defense with Westbrook tasked with fighting over the screen, rather than switching. However, both Rivers and House collapse on the weakside, leaving two shooters open.


Look at the screencap above. House and Rivers form what is often called the 'I' of the weakside defense. Usually they would be outside the paint, covering both Burke and Kleber spotting up. With Boban as the roller, it makes sense for one of those guys to collapse and help Tucker to protect the rim. However, if Rivers does this it means House has to zone the weakside, positioning himself between both shooters ready to close out. When both Rivers and House collapse, nobody is able to get out to contest the shot.


Here is a better example of how the defense should collapse when Luka drives. Again, the lower weakside defender slides to the paint to protect the rim, but on the first play House reads the baseline pass and gets in the passing lane to deflect the ball out of bounds. Westbrook also does a good job of sliding towards Boban to block him out, with the added bonus of covering the over-the-shoulder pass to the trailing Kleber above the break.


On the second play, this time it's House who rotates over to the paint. McLemore is fairly well positioned and quickly chases down the corner shooter when he sees the pass coming. After that, House moves again to rotate to Justin Jackson spotting up above the break. This is how Houston needs to defend every time. If you are bringing a defender over from the weakside to protect the rim, the other defenders have to be perfectly positioned in passing lanes. Once the ball is moved, they have to closeout quickly. Rotations must be made behind them. Any slip up at any moment, even for a fraction of a second, means an open 3. That's life in the NBA.


Of course, as bad as Houston was, Luka Dončić penetrating with 4 shooters orbiting him is a tough task for any defense to guard. And you can see the challenges on the play below.


After the handoff, Hardaway Jr curls around a Porzingis screen off-ball. This takes Westbrook away from the play and forces PJ Tucker to step up with the screener out of the paint. That’s what putting two shooters in an off-ball action does to your defense. This gives Dončić a lane into the paint, and forces Harden to leave the corner to meet him at the rim. After that it's a simple kickout to another open shooter, and another 3 goes down for Dallas.


Dončić attracts so much attention, just like Harden. We're used to seeing opposing teams double Harden as he crosses halfcourt, and Dallas followed that blueprint. Houston didn't quite give Luka the same treatment, but used other perimeter guards to shade him away from the paint by helping off of their assignment. The problem with this 'soft double' on Dončić is you still have to sag off a great shooter. The Mavericks hit 21 3's, and some of these were as easy as standing next to Luka and waiting for the catch and shoot opportunity.


A more effective way to defend the driver is to stunt once he begins downhill. On this Justin Jackson pick n roll, Austin Rivers twice edges towards him. The first is to block his path, the second is to attempt a steal. But on both occasions he is rocking back and forth, quickly jumping back to his man in anticipation of a kickout. The off-ball helper here has to be active, on his heels proactively moving between the two. In the examples above, the defender was rooted in position, moving after the pass was made.



Even when a defender isn’t directly guarding Dončić, all eyes are on him. We see the worst of Harden here as he is following Doncic, firstly setting up the pick n roll, then going into a one-on-one attack. Harden ball-watches, and lets Dorian Finney-Smith cut backdoor.


These are some of the things that Houston will be going over in their film study today. The other glaring issue is their mixup on switches. Several times both defenders would go with the ballhandler, leaving the roller free. Slip screens continue to be an issue, which we have covered previously on this blog. Dribble handoffs caused more confusion still. The Rockets can switch a traditional guard/center pick n roll, but any other action all too often has them befuddled.


These are not new problems for the Rockets, and it is alarming to see them rearing their ugly head once again in Orlando. At half-time, Mike D'Antoni said he thought his players "panicked" when Dallas hit tough shots in the first quarter. It certainly seemed like it at times, with players all running after the ball, not sticking to their assignments or getting into the right help positions. Watch the defense completely break down here, with the rotators always a step behind.


There were other issues on the defensive end Friday night. Rotations and help are needed when a defender can't stay infront of their man, and Dallas had enormous success through 3 quarters penetrating. PJ Tucker and Robert Covington at times seemed a step slow, and Harden was attacked relentlessly when he had 4 fouls - although he picked it up when needed down the stretch. Houston has 7 games to get it together before the playoffs, and I'll be following and breaking down all the action here at teaandrockets. Thanks for reading. Go Rockets!

©2020 by Nathan Fogg.

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