Houston has a commanding lead in their first round series against the Thunder so far. In the 4th quarter of their latest win, the Rockets put together nearly 10 consecutive stops on defense and I would highly recommend watching the full 17-2 run here. As Mike D'Antoni alluded to, Oklahoma are putting out so many non-shooters on the court, the Rockets have a wealth of options for who they want to sag off of or leave alone, giving the impression of a zone defense.
This has taken OKC completely out of their usual offense. In the regular season the Thunder made 53.8 drives per game, 2nd most in the NBA. Through two games against Houston, that number has dropped to just 41.5. They are being forced deeper and deeper into the shotclock as they look to get anything from Houston’s lock-down defense. They usually take 14.4 seconds per possession. Now they take 15.3.
Possessions like this have been frequent.
House and Harden deter Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the first drive with their positioning, forcing a pass to Dort who doesn't want to shoot the open shot, perhaps fearing another airball. SGA gets the ball back and this time at least tries to drive on House, but is turned away by Harden's help defense. He tries a give and go with Adams but Harden grabs the steal because he is able to leave Dort again in the corner.
The Thunder did try to add more shooting in game two, dropping Ferguson and Roberson from the rotation and giving Nader and Bazley more minutes. However, they combined for just three 3-point shots, compared to Lu Dort alone who went 2-8 from deep.
In this play Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers are completely selling out on Bazley and Nader on the weakside. As Chris Paul looks to penetrate on the wing, Gordon goes as far as to step into the restricted area in anticipation of the drive. Instead, Paul is forced to give the ball up to Schröder. Schröder is able to drive, but throws up a heavily contested shot instead of making the swing pass to Bazley in the corner. If the defense is going to collapse off even good shooters, OKC has to find them.
On this play they clear out the strong side with a 1-3 alignment, not something they look to do often. It actually generates an open look for Chris Paul, but he inexplicably turns it down. The play resets and as OKC swing the ball weakside the Rockets aren't able to rotate to both Bazley and Paul, who again is wide open, but only after a charge call on the drive. I'll be interested to see if Billy Donovan tries more of this alignment in game 3.
The comfort the Rockets have at collapsing so aggressively also makes rebounding a lot easier. When you have 4 defenders in the paint helping on a driver, they are already in position to block out and team rebound.
Much of the debate before the series began revolved around how big a factor Steven Adams would be, with some suggesting he would either get played off the floor or dominate the smaller Rockets. Instead, he’s been merely fine. He’s been a presence on the boards and is shooting a very efficient 65% from the field. The problem is, it's on very low volume. Adams took just 4 shots (which were all makes) in game two. This isn’t the sort of play that is punishing the Rockets. So, let's look at why he isn't able to get more involved.
Adams typically likes to set screens fairly low, OKC don’t run much high pick n roll action.
When Adams sets these types of screens the Rockets, of course, switch. The key is to force contact, not allowing a slip screen down the lane – slowing the roller. This is made easier by how big Adams is, the word ‘slip’ is not exactly something you would naturally pair him with. By staying in contact with him, the quick turn and roll for an alleyoop is taken away. The Thunder instead have to settle for a post up, which the Rockets have been great at fronting and denying with their deflections and steals.
Houston's shrink the floor defense has nullified a staple of Oklahoma's pick n roll offense. Their three guards, especially Chris Paul, like to probe holes in the defense as they snake around a ball screen. Those gaps simply aren't there in the middle of the floor, with Houston keeping the guards on the perimeter by packing the middle.
In order to break out of the 1 on 1 play that the Rockets have so often forced, OKC have run a ton of stagger screens. This can be an effective weapon against a switching defense, as you're putting 3 defenders in the action and increasing the chance of a mixup. However the Rockets have defended these very well. As Chris Paul is bringing the ball up, Eric Gordon is looking back and forth to see what is unfolding behind him. With this, combined presumably with some good communication, he anticipates the back screen by Gallinari. Gordon puts his back on Gallo, meaning he is able to quickly swivel left or right with Paul.
CP pulls out a quick in-out dribble, at first moving Covington underneath the screen to the middle, but Gordon sees the move and is able to quickly shuffle right with Paul as he goes around the screen, and the Rockets reject the switch. This is great defense at the point of attack, rather than hoping to be bailed out by the switch. By staying in front of Paul, Gordon's defense means Jeff Green doesn't have to step out to stop the drive, meaning he can stay with Adams and stop the roll out of the second screen.
Some of the Thunder's offensive woes have come through poor execution. They run a nice play here starting off with a guard-to-guard handoff, with Schröder at first looking as if he is going to move towards the corner. Gordon sags deep to follow, but they instead run an Iverson cut as Schröder cuts horizontal across Adams and Bazley.
The Rockets are behind the play as Gordon is catching up, he communicates to Jeff Green to switch onto Schröder and they run a quick slip screen with Bazley who gets open - but the pass isn't quick enough and it's an opportunity missed by the Thunder.
This play starts out of a horns formation with Adams and Bazley at the high post positions. Usually this is the start of a set which can transition into an endless procession of off-ball cuts and movement to get open looks. But instead Schröder tries an Adams screen on no less than 3 occasions, with everybody else stood watching.
They finally get the switch they are looking for with Gordon on Adams, with just 6 seconds left. The play ends in a turnover.
Even when the Thunder have tried to throw in more movement and involve more in the play, the Rockets are denying off-ball cutters all over the court. This play starts with two dribble handoffs on the perimeter and a pass to Adams at the high post. Chris Paul cuts into the lane but it's a quick switch by Gordon and Covington and Gordon shows good ball denial to stop the pass. A Gallinari postup is the secondary action but Danuel House denies that too. This forces Adams to attempt to put the ball on the floor and that's easy pickings for James Harden on the strong side help.
I love this play that finally gets Chris Paul open in the mid-range. Gallinari curls around an initial screen from Steven Adams in the middle, and they both step up into a stagger screen for Paul. This 'screen the screener' action gets some separation and now it's PJ Tucker underneath both screens who picks up Chris Paul, leaving some space for him to get to work.
Unfortunately, he misses the shot, one of the only clean looks he has had at the rim from the midrange all series.
Billy Donovan will have to go deeper into his playbook to try to coax some easier looks out of this offense, but the Rockets should be credited with keeping the deadly 3-guard lineup out of the paint. Not only are they shrinking the floor and switching sharply, their isolation defense has been incredible. We know the strengths of PJ Tucker and Robert Covington, but guys like Jeff Green, Danuel House and Eric Gordon have consistently denied penetration and drives to the rim. Ultimately, as I predicted in my series preview, OKC's disastrous lack of perimeter shooting is also meaning they simply can't find ways to score in the halfcourt. That isn't going to change, which is why the Rockets can close this one out early.