Bubble Science: Game #4 Breakdown
Houston improved their bubble record to 3-1 with a (mostly) comfortable 113-97 win over the Lakers on Thursday night. It was only the 4th time this season that the Rockets have kept their opponent to fewer than 100 points, a very difficult proposition with the pace they play at. With that victory, Houston is now tied for the 10th best defensive rating in the NBA in the smallball era, and 6th in Orlando. Since the restart, they are also 3rd in halfcourt defense, at 89.8 points per possession per Cleaning The Glass.
Even with LeBron sitting out, the Rockets got another look at one of the obstacles in their path to an NBA championship. Anthony Davis. I wrote a deep dive previously into how Houston defended both LeBron and AD in their February matchup, which you might want to read first here.
To get it out of the way, Houston’s Achilles heel all season has been slip screens, and when AD slips to the basket with LeBron as the pick n roll ballhandler, no team in the league has an answer. The Rockets struggled in their previous game, and even without LeBron there were some cracks to be seen here. They foul on this play, but not before both Tucker and Green go with AD, leaving Kuzma wide open. It is possible they would decide to do this intentionally, Kuzma is an atrocious above the break 3-point shooter, to the tune of a miserable 25% this season. Still, from Green’s stumble it doesn’t appear this was intentional.
Certain defenders have shown a good denial of the slip by forcing contact and effectively ‘bumping’ Davis into the other defender to force the contact the slip intentionally avoids.
Even Ben McLemore here executes a perfect denial by making sure he gets under Davis before he turns.
This is a vital move to make before Davis slips or cuts to the basket. It's likely he might be able just power through a smaller defender like McLemore on the pass anyway, but it will prove effective for bigger guys like House, Harden or Tucker.
This, from the previous February matchup, is what can happen if you let Davis get infront of you and you are left chasing his shadow.
Houston did have one last counter for when Davis was able to slip into the lane uncovered. Quick help from the still incredibly springy Jeff Green. The first play here is an amazing steal on the lob. The second isn't as exciting, but shows Green rotating and tagging Davis after the slip. It leaves Danny Green and Jared Dudley open, but other defenders can rotate behind him. Getting the ball out of AD's hands in this situation is priority number one. Green and Dudley are distant afterthoughts.
With or without LeBron, a staple of the Lakers offense is going to be posting up Davis. The first time Davis got the ball on the block, Harden immediately came over to help and fill the space between the post and the basket. Every time Houston does this, even if Harden doesn’t technically get involved in the play, the extra defender there is forcing Davis into passing out or hitting a tougher shot.
Per NBA tracking data, Davis is shooting a paltry 41% on all shots categorised as turnarounds, hook shots or fadeaways. Any time you can keep AD away from the rim, you’re forcing him into shots he can’t make at any sort of threatening clip. In this case, Davis is driving baseline to the basket before Covington and Harden cut him off, forcing him to revert to a tough turnaround hook shot that doesn’t come close. On 2-point jump shots Davis is 38.6% this year, and he has been a career 31.9% 3-point shooter. All this is to say, Davis isn’t a unicorn.
Where Davis has caused the Rockets headaches - and he is shooting 65.5% from the field against them this season - has been on alleyoops, slip screens and of course, putbacks. They did show improvement guarding slips in this game, although it's hard to judge when it's Quinn Cook running point instead of LeBron. The putbacks are always going to be there. But for the most part, the Rockets have decided to focus their defense on containing Davis. For the season, 48.6% of his shots are either ‘open’ or ‘wide-open’ per NBA tracking. Against Houston, that drops to 24.1%. Granted, it’s easier to double Davis when LeBron James isn’t playing, but even in the February matchup that number was only 28.6%. Whenever he posts up, Houston has proven more than capable of defending him.
He is 7-13 on shots out of post ups, nothing to be sniffed at, but not something that Mike D'Antoni and his coaching staff will fear in a playoff series on fairly low volume. What isn't counted is the shots that are deterred by defenders like PJ Tucker not giving up an inch.
Davis wants to go to work here, but Tucker's aggressiveness forces him to pass out. Look at Tucker's positioning, parallel to the basket, forcing Davis into Danuel House who is pre-rotated on the strong side.
This defense is part of the reason Davis took just 8 shots in his 30 minutes on Thursday. PJ brought it all, denying entry passes, stopping drives to the rim, taking charges and basically just smothering Davis all night.
I'll leave with this play, just perfect defense resulting in a turnover. I have no other words for it, other than it really is a joy to watch such stellar defense by PJ Tucker here.