Seeing The Forest Between The Trees: How Does Houston Defend Bigs? Part I.
Perhaps the most important thing for Houston’s defense, or at least the most debated, will be how they deal with skilled big men. No team presented that test more formidably than the giant LA Lakers, who happened to be Houston's first opponent after the Capela trade. The 121-111 win on national TV, with a very respectable 107.8 defensive rating, gave early evidence that smallball can work. Even against the most overmatched teams. A second-round matchup with the Lakers now seems preferable for many over the Clippers. Houston got layup after layup, while limiting LA to just 6 offensive rebounds on the other side. Nevertheless, fans were treated to Chris Webber showing incredulity at the audacity of Houston's lineup. With so many false national narratives surrounding the Rockets, it’s certainly tempting to declare all those doubters as dinosaurs.
But let’s take a closer look at how the Lakers game unfolded, and how the Rockets countered the height disadvantage. Despite a lot of strong defensive work, feeding Anthony Davis or LeBron James in the post is still a mismatch that is hard to guard. How much of that is the size difference, as opposed to simply their overall excellent offensive game? It's probably more the latter. Could you really say Clint Capela would help all that much? After all, Mike D'Antoni is already on record saying PJ Tucker is a better post defender than Capela. But where it might make a difference is encouraging the Lakers to force more postups than they normally would. They average 14.5 per game, good for 2nd in the NBA. Against the Rockets though, they posted up 23 times. We might think that bodes well for Houston, it's well versed that the postup is an inefficient play, but the Lakers took 12 shots and hit 58% of them. They usually only get 5.7 shots off at 47.9% shooting. Not only did they generate more looks, but a much higher percentage of them went in. For posterity, in part two of this instalment we will look at another big that Houston had more success keeping out of the game - Rudy Gobert. But for now, we will focus on the Lakers matchup.
Of course, you can't look at 7 of 12 shooting out of the post and extrapolate that to say the Lakers will shoot 58% on such plays every night. However, looking at the compilation below, most of this was pretty conventional scoring. The first bucket is a really tough one on Harden, but the rest seem easily replicable.
But these few shots only tell a small part of the story. We know the Lakers posted up 23 times, but it would have been more if the Lakers were able to connect on all their entry passes. This is where Houston's lengthy defenders were able to play above their size and generate deflections and turnovers.
When the bigs were able to establish position, the real danger was often seen off-ball. LA was able to create open looks through actions out of the post, most effectively with cutters manoeuvring around a Houston defense with all eyes on Davis and LeBron.
This is a typical set out of a postup. The first action sees LeBron set an off-ball screen for Danny Green, but McLemore and Covington cover it well with the switch. However, Bradley moves towards the arc, but then scampers back into position. Westbrook is caught napping, and completely unaware of Bradley's movement. He gets an open shot, which doesn't fall. And this may be a saving grace for the Rockets. The Lakers don’t have many volume 3-point shooters to take advantage of the gravity both of their superstars have. Overall, the Lakers are 23rd in the amount of 3-point shots they take per100. New recruits Dion Waiters and JR Smith will help here, but they have to be passable defensively to stay on the court. The Lakers might need one to be part of their closing lineup. Their usual 4th rated offense tanks to 21st in clutch minutes, and they hit just 31.8% of their 3-pointers.
Watch the play below as LeBron kicks out to KCP. Both Tucker and House close out, leaving Rondo open. However, the pass is a bounce pass and by the time Rondo collects, House has rotated and forces him into the drive. If this play happens for the Rockets, either of those perimeter players are starting their shooting motion before the ball even reaches them.
You don't need knock-down shooters however, if you can cut for a layup. And this is where the Rockets really struggled.
AD has the ball at the high post, with Rivers guarding him. The Rockets here are flooding the strong side, with Tucker pre-rotated stood in the space between Davis and the basket. House takes his eye off Caruso for a second, and he’s blown by him to get the ball on the catch for the layup. Tucker is well positioned to be able to contest, but it's a tough proposition with Caruso going downhill and he concedes the shooting foul.
The positioning of Tucker pre-rotating here does give some protection from the weakside cutter going into the paint. You can quickly collapse and contest at the rim. See here for another example.
Harden is pre-rotated, although he is still keeping close to McGee and hopping in and out of the paint. Again it's a weakside cut from Avery Bradley, who gets past Austin Rivers who simply can't contain him and stay near enough to Danny Green in the corner ready to close out. When Bradley catches the ball however, he is in the middle of the paint with nowhere to go but up, and Harden is perfectly positioned to contest and force Bradley into an extremely difficult pullup fadeaway. It's a good last line of defense.
So far so good for Houston. But the gravity of LA's two stars cannot be understated. Here, PJ Tucker is sagging off Javale McGee in order to double Davis, leaving a clear running lane for the alley-oop.
This is not an effective double team.
Help positioning is a vital part of any defensive scheme. When you are an aggressive defense like Houston, aiming to produce turnovers and force anyone who isn't a star to make plays, that positioning is make or break. There isn't a rim protector who can clean up a mistake. Furthermore, the Rockets are giving up size at almost every individual matchup, so they send help aggressively to counter that. That means players are often guarding two players at once, or positioning themselves to block the passing lane. An inch out of place either side can mean an easy bucket. And as you can see, even with PJ Tucker, sometimes it's just impossible not to focus on Anthony Davis when your man is JaVale McGee 18 feet away from the basket.
Another cutter gets open here as the Rockets double Davis in the post. They double quickly as Sefolosha isn't able to get good positioning on Davis on the entry pass. He fronts, the lob goes over him, and Covington has to come over. Caruso runs in the lane for the layup.
You can see the conundrum here for the weakside defenders. Once Covington comes over to double, McLemore is left guarding both Caldwell-Pope and Caruso. I asked twitter who was to blame here for the cut and got a response from former NBA coach Steve Jones Jr.
There's just so much ground for the weakside defenders to cover. McLemore goes to block the passing lane to KCP, a good instinct since AD is being pushed almost out of bounds and the pass across the baseline is the most obvious move. But Russ doesn't collapse in to cover Caruso. It's hard to know what broke down, there is surely a lack of communication between the two. But also a lack of effort. Kuzma actually also runs into the paint to crash the glass, and Russ still doesn't pick him up. When you are doubling, the other defenders need to be hyper aware of off-ball movement since it's 4 on 3. Westbrook is frequently not.
Here LeBron drives past Covington and passes to KCP in the corner through the open lane. Why is it open? Because Westbrook is sticking to Rondo and makes no attempt to collapse in on LeBron. Russ should know he can inch off of Rondo to block the passing lane, he isn't a threat in a crowded lane like that.
It's not just Russ who needs to improve. We would likely see the same lapses from Harden if he were used in the weakside more, but he is usually tasked to engage on-ball. And to stress again, doubling means there is always the potential for an open man to get free, no matter who the help defender is. Here's another easy bucket that the Lakers generate out of a double team.
There's a lot going on in this possession. House manages to push LeBron away from the paint, but by then Eric Gordon had already decided to double. The pass from LeBron is insane, and shows how difficult it is to get the off-ball defense just right. Westbrook moves towards Green in the corner to block the passing lane, and Covington does a good job of trying to get infront of Caruso. If you watch Covington, he never even looks back, he's just watching LeBron and sees the direction where he is throwing - he doesn't even see Caruso running in. This is smart, sharp defense to anticipate the cut. But, it's still not quite quick enough, the pass is perfect and Caruso catches it on the drive. He can't decelerate to get the shot off, but the pass out forces the defense to scramble and ends in the LeBron open layup.
The good news for Rockets fans is that with this being Covington's first game after the trade, he came off the bench. That meant Tucker and Covington only played 14 minutes together. If this were a playoff matchup, that number would probably be doubled. When the two were on the court together, the Lakers only shot 30% from the floor on 29 shots, including going 1-11 from the 3-point line.
This is a better defensive possession where each off-ball cut is covered. Firstly, give props to James Harden, who closes out both Bradley and Caruso after LeBron is double teamed and the ball is swung into the corner. Harden also covers the initial Caruso cut, and Westbrook covers Bradley's cut. Once Davis gets the ball Covington spends the entire possession edging towards him, while keeping a close eye on LeBron spotting up. He sees the play before it happens, and jumps in to grab the ball right from Davis as he goes up for the shot.
On the next Lakers possession Houston's closing lineup did another good job off-ball. Every move is covered and Gordon closes out on Bradley after the pass. LeBron still gets the and-1 after the reset, but that's going to happen sometimes.
Now onto the biggest issue the Rockets faced, the LeBron/Davis pick n roll. Houston is by no means the only team to struggle defending an action between two of the game's best offensive players, but they do have particular problems defending the slip screen.
Again, this is an area where Houston may find more success using Covington and Tucker as the defenders. The slip screen relies on the screener making minimal or no contact with the defender at all, turning quickly into the lane and relying on a split second of hesitation to get an open alley-oop.
The key for the defence then, is to force that contact. Here PJ Tucker and James Harden respectively do a good job of bumping Davis into the other defender, slowing down his roll.
The defenders essentially have to close the gap between themselves, making sure Davis can't split inbetween them and roll to the rim. That is a very hard thing to do depending on the angle Davis initiates the screen at. Watch the short clip below for example, House isn't able to nudge Davis into Harden, and he is able to get into the gap between them (the rest of the clip is in the compilation above...it doesn't end well).
In the end Houston was able to get a big statement win on the road. For the most part they defended well, although they will have to continue perfecting their help positioning in Orlando. It's hard to gain too much insight from a game where Houston's two best defenders barely shared the court together, but the strengths and weakness will be well known by the coaching staff. I can't wait to see the different adjustments both teams would make in a playoff series. For now, we'll end with some Robert Covington highlights. Because why not?