Seeing The Forest Between The Trees: How Does Houston Defend Bigs? Part II
In the first post of this two-parter we dissected Houston's road win against the Lakers, looking particularly at how they matched up with Anthony Davis. Well, three days later they were given another test of smallball, coming up against Utah Jazz and Rudy Gobert. It's been well documented that Utah has struggled utilising Gobert effectively in its offense. Their main ball-handlers have not been adept at reading the defense and connecting on the lob pass. This was brought to a head in an excellent report by ESPN’s Tim McMahon.
“Gobert rarely hesitates to let teammates know if they miss him when he is open around the rim. He'll occasionally point up during play in animated fashion, sometimes as he is running back on defense, to note that a lob should have been thrown. He'll often air his gripes verbally, during games and again in film sessions.”
You can see several missed lobs in the compilation below. These are all slip screens, a particular Rockets weakness that we saw Anthony Davis exploit. Houston has similar issues here leaving Gobert open as he rolls into the lane. However, on each occasion the ball-handler misses what seems like the easy pass.
When Utah was looking for Gobert as he rolled, the threat posed to the defense was pretty evident. Not all of these are strictly slip screens, but they are cases of Gobert at most making minimal contact, and looking for the quick cut to the basket as the primary option.
This first action here sees Tucker and Harden switch on Ingles and Gobert. It’s not timed particularly well, and Ingles has space to quickly get a shot off before Tucker closes him out. Fortunately, Ingles has one of the slower releases in the NBA and passes up the shot. Look at the thumbnail before starting the video first to see the distance between Tucker and Gobert, who is about to set the screen.
A quicker shooter could have punished Houston's poor switching. The screen defender always needs to be up at the point of screen. The defenders need to be close together - a gap leaves the ball-handler momentarily open when the switch is made. The possession is at least saved by some great individual defense by Robert Covington to keep Bogdanović infront of him, allowing Harden to stay close to Gobert and get the steal on the pass.
This, in contrast, is an absolutely flawless piece of switching by PJ and Harden.
Gobert is looking to slip in between the gap, but as we discussed in the previous article, the defender needs to make their own contact if the screener isn’t going to. Here, Tucker bumps Gobert just slightly into Harden, forcing the switch and ensuring Gobert can't roll to the rim.
This is another perfectly executed switch, as Gobert sets a backscreen behind Covington who has his eyes on the ball-handler.
Harden sees through the bodies to anticipate Ingles driving to his left, and slides over behind Gobert to block his path. We can't hear anything, but this requires good communication between the two defenders to make sure Covington immediately knows to switch onto Gobert, which he does, getting the out of bounds deflection on the pass.
One counter Utah equipped was to increase the gap between Gobert and the ball-handler, forcing space between the defenders and making it harder to initiate contact for the switch. Watch below as Mike Conley starts his attack downhill from the logo. Gobert is retreating backwards before slipping into the paint. At no point are Harden and House close enough together. If they are to switch, House will always be on the wrong side of Gobert having to recover. This causes confusion as both defenders move with Gobert to the rim, leaving Conley open for the pull up 3.
Utah also tried the slip screen at an angle, with the ball-handler rounding the corner into the middle. This didn’t prove very effective as we can see in the play below, with the Jazz actually trying this twice, to no effect.
In the first instance, Gobert is running parallel in the opposite direction to Bogdanović. The diagonal angle he is running at means he can’t slip between the gap of the defenders, and instead he runs into Harden. As the ball swings around the perimeter and back, Bogdanović and Gobert try the exact same play again. However, this time Conley makes a poor decision to cut through the two, making the run into the space that Gobert should be occupying on the roll. This means House, who is following Conley, is already in a good help position ready to tag Gobert on the roll.
On the following play Utah pre-filled the strong side, with Bogdanović stood in the corner. Gobert is actually able to slip this time with a bit of space. It's another backscreen which always makes it harder for the switch defender because Gobert starts his roll already ahead of him. Mitchell even makes the pass, but Westbrook does a good job quickly recovering. Both Harden and Covington collapse to meet Gobert at the rim and they get a deflection out of bounds.
Leaving both corners open is a gamble. However, gambles pay off if the offense can't punish you for it, and Gobert wasn't able to. Gobert only averages 1.5 assists per game this season and the vast majority of those are through handoffs, as the Jazz like to use him initiating plays beyond the arc. In fact, Gobert only has 11 total assists in 62 games so far coming out of the roll. Passes like this should be routine, but when they aren't defenses feel more comfortable leaving shooters to help.
I do wonder whether Houston has actively made a decision that they are happy to allow both corner defenders to collapse in on Gobert, knowing the threat is small that he can kick out the pass. Normally the Rockets, like most teams, don’t help from the strong side. But watch here as Tucker and Harden blitz Mitchell on the slip screen. Gobert rolls, and it should be Covington’s job as the weakside defender to help. However, House also helps off of Conley, who Mitchell finds for the easy 3.
Upon first watch I thought this was just a bad decision from House in forgetting to stay with the strong side corner shooter. However, if you watch Mitchell at the moment he picks up his dribble, he brings the ball up looking to pass to Gobert, and it's at this moment when House moves to the paint to help. This leads me to believe the Rockets will break their rule on Gobert and collapse the defense from both sides, contesting with multiple bodies at the rim and living with him being a secondary playmaker.
I picked the Jazz to study because they are in a unique position of having played Houston twice in the smallball era. They won this game of course, courtesy of an insane Bogdanović buzzer beater that I still haven’t recovered from. However, Gobert was largely anonymous throughout, taking only six shots. He ended the night with 12 points, one assist and was a -6. We’ve heard the rebuttal that teams with star big men may struggle against Houston, but in a seven game series would surely figure out the gimmick. However, Utah played the Rockets again less than two weeks later and had the same struggles. In this game Gobert only had seven shots, marking another 12-point outing. They were of course, playing other games in the meantime, so it doesn’t mimic a playoff series of adjustments and counters. But I thought it would be interesting to study nonetheless.
In the next game, a Rockets win on February 22nd, Utah looked to place Gobert in the dunker's spot more often, rather than running pick n roll. Early on the Jazz had success using Gobert as an outlet out of drives. This is the very first possession of the game.
Gobert actually starts the possession in the corner, creating space between himself and the ball-handler. Tucker has to slide over to get in the way of the drive, leaving Gobert free to cut inside to the paint and get the pass for the bucket.
The same thing happened again just a minute later. This time Tucker is close enough to slide into the paint to help on Ingles as he drives, but also recover quickly to Gobert on the pass. It’s a nice move from Gobert however, who quickly attacks baseline off the catch and gets the hook shot to go. He moves just as Tucker recovers back into position, catching him off balance.
On the whole, the Rockets were able to adjust to this added wrinkle, although this was partly due to a lack of quality execution from the Jazz. It wasn't as smooth as the typical alley-oop finishes we have seen Clint Capela collect from James Harden over the years.
In this possession Gobert is again in the dunker's spot. Conley drives on Tucker, and Harden leaves Gobert to contest the drive (props to House for the quick stunt also). This means Covington has to leave Joe Ingles open in the corner, which is always a dangerous choice. However, with four bodies in the paint blocking the pass, Conley isn’t able to kick out.
Ingles probably should have moved towards the break where the passing lane was free. Covington does a good job being physical with Gobert, although the lob is probably available if Conley can make it. Instead, Gobert gets a badly placed pass and is pounced upon by three Houston defenders. PJ Tucker gets the strip and it’s a transition break for Houston.
There are some serious issues here in Utah's offense. There just isn't that connection that the ball-handler should have with the center on drives or pick n rolls. Here Gobert slips into the paint, but Jordan Clarkson instead passes to Mitchell, who tries to drive but is stopped by Tucker and Covington. He passes back to Clarkson, who himself is able to penetrate. However, by this point Gobert has already been in the paint for three seconds and is about to get a lane violation. This is poor timing and chemistry, and Gobert has to step out of the paint and away from the basket when the pass is made.
The rebound is fortuitous for Clarkson, although when three defenders all collapse hard on one guy those are always going to be available.
Gobert is still a threat. He’s good initiating hand-offs, and even if he only takes six shots in a game, he is still to some extent warping a defense that is geared towards stopping him. He is of course also a problem on the glass, where the Rockets will continue to struggle as long as they are small. But in two successive games they kept him to below his season average, which is always a win for the defense. I'll end this blog post with a compilation of steals, deflections and blocks as Houston continuously denied the big man at the rim. With locker room issues and injuries to contend with as play begins, Utah will face another monumental task to go through Houston if they meet for a third consecutive year in the playoffs.