Houston Rockets: Flexing defensive chops key to deep playoff run

Houston Rockets players Capela and House (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets players Capela and House (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets are primarily known as an offensive team but flexing their defensive chops will help secure the Larry O’Brien trophy. Let’s examine.

The Houston Rockets are known as an offensive team. This much is known about the Spacemen. They try to outscore you at all costs, opting for as many threes as possible and when that isn’t available, a drive to the rim will suffice.

Mike D’Antoni is known as an offensive coach, especially with his claim to fame being the “Seven seconds or less” offense during the most recent heyday of the Pheonix Suns. James Harden is known as one of the best offensive players in the NBA today, nay, in NBA history.

That is this Rockets team’s identity. Threes, alley-oops, and drives. Score as many points as possible at whatever means possible. It’s been their identity and strategy for better and for worse and has remained as such this season.

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However, over the final quarter of the season, the Houston Rockets began to subtly change that narrative. The offensive remained as high flying and flashy as ever but the defense began to slowly creep up to match the prowess the offensive possessed.

You see, over the first 62 games of the season (a lot which saw a ton of roster turnover and injuries), the Rockets averaged over 111 points allowed per game. Over the final 20 games of the season, the Rockets picked up their defensive intensity and energy and dropped that average to just under 103 points allowed per game.

During the first 62 games of the season when they were allowing 111 points per game, the Houston Rockets were only outscoring their opponents by less than 5 points per game. However, in those final 20 games, that margin jumped up to an average of a shade under 13 points per game. That jump had less to do with the offense than it did with improved defense.

The Houston Rockets continued this trend Sunday night in their first playoff game against the 5th seeded Utah Jazz. The defensive clamps were put on the Jazz and the Rockets won by a nice, wide margin of 32 points which is the second largest deficit in Jazz playoff history and the second largest win margin in Rockets playoff history.

This was just the 18th time this season, so 83 games, that the Rockets were able to hold their opponents under 100 points with the Jazz only scoring 90. Additionally, the Jazz only shot 39% from the field which marks just the 7th time the Rockets held their opponent under 40% from the field.

The Houston Rockets have been playing with increased intensity and energy on that side of the ball led by their defensive captain, P.J. Tucker. The Rockets came into the series opener against the Jazz with a very defined plan on what they would aim to do and it worked flawlessly.

That plan? Lockdown Donovan Mitchell and force him to be uncomfortable and to work harder for his points than he normally has to. They were able to do just that as Mitchell was held to just 19 points on 39% shooting to go with an offensive rating of 76 (that is he added 76 points per 100 possessions) to go with a +/- of -20, per basketball-reference.com.

Other guys had some success, particularly Rudy Gobert, but they weren’t able to do enough against the Rockets stifling defense. Every player on the Rockets that played Sunday night had 96 or lower defensive rating, that is they allowed 96 or fewer points per 100 possessions.

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Finally, the Houston Rockets collected six steals and six blocks over the course of the game while the Jazz committed a total of 18 turnovers. Some of these were major miscues on behalf of the Jazz but a lot were due to the activity the Rockets displayed while on defense.

The Houston Rockets will never be mistaken for a defensive team like the Jazz, who are typically known for what they can do on defense. However, they have been playing much, much better defensively. Couple this improved defense with an offense that just hung 132 points on the league’s second best defense and you get a team that will be mighty hard to stop.

The Houston Rockets were always a good offensive team and they will always be a good offensive team while Harden runs the floor and D’Antoni roams the bench. But, Jeff Bzdelik has this team hitting their defensive stride and the right time and it could very well lead to the Rockets hoisting the Larry O’Brien championship trophy at the end of the playoffs.

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The Houston Rockets will take on the Utah Jazz for game two of the first round of the playoffs tonight at 8:30 pm in Houston. If game one was any indication, game two should be easily won to take a 2-0 series lead when the series shifts to Salt Lake City.