Since the Rockets went all in on smallball much has been made of how a team can defend the paint with no natural rim protector. The best centers don't just block shots, they deter drives to the rim and contest when they get there. They are the last line of defense for when a perimeter defender is unable to contain his man - something which happens frequently in today's guard orientated, high octane game. This is part one of a series of posts which will examine how the defense is faring under smallball. The key things to know? The Rockets are doing about the same in halfcourt, which was already very good, but are only somewhat improved in transition, going from one of the worst teams in the league to middle of the pack. They give up more shots at the rim and from the 3 point line, but hold defenses to lower shooting percentages from both locations. The result is the smallball starters hold opponents to an eFG of 48.9%, compared to 52.9% with Capela at center. A sizeable difference. With this blog post, we will focus firstly on Houston's halfcourt defense, and more specifically, its rim protection. In the area where smallball is supposed to be weakest, Houston is holding its own. We'll look at some of the negatives in a future, less fun post.
To be precise, the smallball Rockets concede 1.72 extra points per 100 possessions within 3 feet (on lower fg%, but more attempts). Extended further however, they concede less than one tenth of a point more per 100 possessions within 9 feet of the basket. That is a margin they will happily give up, if they can improve the other areas of their defense in turn. As a disclaimer here, I am comparing the two most used starting lineups of Westbrook-Harden-House-Tucker-Capela and then the same with Covington instead of Capela. Looking at other smallball lineups you start to get to very small sample sizes, although almost all have a very good defensive rating. The lineups which are bad have Eric Gordon in them, and Eric Gordon has been disastrous all season long. Whatever lineup he is in suffers with him in it. (Please get/stay healthy Eric!)
So how are they doing it? Well, by now Rockets fans are well versed in the switch everything defensive scheme, but Kelly Iko from the Athletic has also done a great job exploring the 'shrink the floor' mentality of new defensive co-ordinator Elston Turner, which I will explore in detail here. Mostly, I will be pulling examples from the 111-110 thrilling overtime win over Boston on February 29th, where Boston shot a dire 3 of 11 on halfcourt drives when Houston's starters were in the game.
Let's talk help defense.
The first action of the game for Boston sees Jaylen Brown take Danuel House hard to the rim, where he meets no opposition and gets the easy basket. Notice the screen Marcus Smart sets on Westbrook to make sure he can't contest at the rim, clearing the path for Brown. It's important to look at this play as it shows what happens when Houston isn't able to send help - Boston gets an easy bucket. But after this play, things stopped going to plan for the Celtics as Houston met them at the rim on every drive.
Just as Houston encouraged the Golden State Warriors to junk up their league leading offense into straight up ISOball in the 2018 playoffs, centerless lineups are producing the same effect. Look hard enough and you can almost see a player's eyes light up at the idea of beating their man off the dribble and having a go ahead look at the rim. This has been a part of Houston's defense all year long. For the season, no team faces as many isolation possessions on defense. Opponents play in isolation 7.9% of the time against the Rockets, reaping just 0.82 points per possession when doing so, third stingiest in the league. In the play below, Jayson Tatum, who had been on a tear and looking to keep up his scoring exploits, drives on James Harden.
This time, Tucker slides into the paint to block off the lane. There's a mix-up to start, as both Westbrook and Tucker think the other man is going to pick up Daniel Theis, meaning he cuts to the rim completely free. However, Tatum had already committed to getting his shot off when he sees James Harden guarding him and ignores the obvious pass. Teams are missing the easier play because Houston is baiting them into one on one scoring.
The play below again starts with Tatum looking to attack, with a seemingly open lane if he can beat Covington off the dribble. However, as soon as Tatum makes his move Harden has already moved into the lane and ends up contesting the shot. House gets in front of Theis to block out, although Tucker could probably do better to pick up the cutting Smart who ends up getting the rebound.
Westbrook should also do more to challenge Tatum's drive, although as Kelly Iko reported in his article on Elston Turner, "Turner doesn’t just want people running to the paint every time the ball is down there, and certainly never from the strong side. He advocates for smart help. In a perfect world, weakside help can come, with the strongside vigilant of everything going on behind and around, able to communicate and carry out swift rotations when necessary."
This is a better example of the positioning needed to be able to block passing lanes, as well as boxout after the shot goes up. In the possession below, Brown drives to the basket with Westbrook poorly positioned. House contests at the rim, with Harden rotating to pick up Smart. With Hayward looking to crash the offensive glass, Covington positions himself infront of him, blocking the pass and also blocking him out for the rebound, which Harden is able to snag. This lineup is always going to surrender rebounds, but more of this and they can at least be semi-competitive.
So far this is fairly conventional help defense. A guy beats his man, another defender slides over to contest, and it is the job of the rotator to figure out the rest, usually choosing between two open men on the perimeter. However, those spare men are only a threat if the driver sees the pass. Tatum averages 2.2 assists per game for his career, and in the 3 games prior to this had scored a massive 110 points, with just 6 assists. It's important to know that not every player attempting a drive will find the open man once the defense helps and rotates. In the case of Tatum, maybe it was simply because he was being over-aggressive after such a hot streak. But it's also important for Rockets fans to remember that not every team has two hall-of-fame point guards capable of kicking out to any man from a drive. Note the image below, this time from Houston's 140-112 win over Memphis in the previous game. As Kyle Anderson drives on Russell Westbrook the defense is able to collapse and leave Dillon Brooks open in the corner and Ja Morant spotting up from deep, because there is just no way Kyle Anderson can make that pass.
Now compare that to say, James Harden, who somehow passes to Danuel House from this position right here.
In a split second after taking off from the ground, Harden is able to calculate that Morant is closer to Westbrook, and perhaps also that an open House shot is a higher percentage look. Combine that with making the pass, and this is offensive genius at work.
Back to Boston, and this time some exceptional rim protection from PJ Tucker and Robert Covington, who are able to play both the driver and stick close enough to their big to effectively guard both at the same time (think how Draymond was able to sag off Capela momentarily to stunt onto a Harden drive, but recover quickly to blow up the alley-oop attempt in a play we saw repeatedly in last year's playoffs)
Most of Houston’s best defensive work came with Theis on the court. Theis is a very capable big man. His offensive rating in 3 years as a Celtic are 117, 128 and an absurd 130 this season. It’s fair to say the Celtics aren’t struggling to score with him on the court. However, with the center stuck in the paint, rather than being able to spot up from 3, Houston can do what they want to do - pack the paint. This serves as another reminder, few other teams can provide the 5-out spacing Houston can. Theis isn't the same above the rim threat as a Clint Capela is, and Covington plants his back on Theis but also uses his length to contest Tatum as he drives past Tucker and misses the shot.
The same thing happens here as Gordon Hayward drives on Robert Covington. This time it's PJ Tucker who puts his back to Theis and also attempts to contest the Hayward shot, however he loses his footing as Theis appears to nudge him in the back, and Hayward is able to get the basket.
Tucker is one of the smartest help defenders in the league, whether that's in the paint or on the perimeter. Watch below as he stunts momentarily on Jayson Tatum as he drives on House. He picks the exact right timing to block the path of Tatum, who can't get past two defenders. Instead, he is forced into a tough turnaround J that he misses, although House is called for the landing space foul.
Now watch that again and pause the video 3 seconds in. Look at PJ Tucker's positioning. His body is next to House - blocking Tatum's path - but he's already begun his recover back to Smart, and his arms are outstretched in an attempt to block the passing lane. I don't mean to suggest this is ground-breaking defense, it's just an example of the small things PJ Tucker does on every play.
It's not just about contesting shots when a player is able to get to the rim, but to try to stop them getting there in the first place. This brings us to one of the best defensive plays Houston has made all season. The switching is seamless, the help is on point, and the contest at the rim is perfect. Take a look.
Most of this is just insane PJ Tucker defense. Once the switching begins, he starts off from a low position, perhaps anticipating Theis going to the post. He is, however, quickly able to step up to switch onto the ball handler, with House doing a good job switching onto Theis and blocking the pass, just as Tucker does with his arms up. Tucker then helps on Smart who looks to drive on Harden, forcing the pass to Hayward who Tucker then quickly closes out on, avoiding overplaying the pumpfake. Hayward tries to drive, but Harden stunts, and he is forced to reset. From there, Hayward does well to get downhill, but Covington is there to contest the shot. House picks up Covington's man in the corner and Tucker keeps himself on Hayward's left shoulder, making the pass to the now open Theis on the wing impossible. Lastly, Tucker simply grabs the ball from Hayward as he tries to go for the layup. It's brilliant.
If the Rockets can continue to switch seamlessly, position themselves perfectly on the help, and rotate well enough after packing the paint, their halfcourt defense will continue to be as strong as it is - even without a rim protector. Their smallball starting lineup is in the 81st percentile for defense in the halfcourt (minimum 100 possessions), and its 48.7% opponent eFG is the 4th lowest among all NBA lineups (minimum 150 possessions). There is more to it than helping on drives of course, and how far the Rockets progress in the playoffs will depend on how they defend big men like Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis down low. We will cover that in the next post. And eventually in this series, I will explore where the defense can improve, such as fouling (spoiler, they foul A LOT), rebounding and in transition.
(stats provided from Cleaning the Glass, Basketball Reference and addmorefunds.com/wowy.)